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Vt. Senate committee considers stiffening penalties for selling drugs connected to fatal overdoses

A large gray building with columns and a golden dome is surrounded with trees and snow. A lit Christmas tree with a star on top sits in the foreground.
Zoe McDonald
The Senate Judiciary committee took testimony on Thursday on a bill that would stiffen criminal penalties for drug trafficking and people who sell drugs that lead to fatal overdoses.

Vermont lawmakers are considering a bill to stiffen criminal penalties for people trafficking fentanyl and those who distribute or sell drugs that cause a fatal overdose.

The Senate Judiciary committee heard testimony from law enforcement officials on the new legislation on Thursday.

The bill would establish a three-year mandatory prison sentence for people convicted of a second fentanyl trafficking offense and a two-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for people who sell or distribute drugs that cause a fatal overdose.

The new law also eliminates the ability of defendants to claim they didn’t know the drugs contained deadly substances, like fentanyl.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage told the committee that the state’s current “knowing” standard is problematic. She said her office has at least six pending cases against people who’ve sold drugs that have led to a fatal overdose.

“At least two or three of those cases have been, in the past year, dismissed because we have not been able to prove that the individual knew there was fentanyl,” Marthage said on Thursday. “I feel like we are doing a great disservice by not having more rigorous of statutes to address the drugs that are out there currently.”

Marthage told the committee she’s struggled to take a position on mandatory minimums, calling them a “double-edged sword.”

“If there's a mandatory minimum, then individuals are going to want a trial period,” she said. “I think the legislators that have an opinion about it, and putting a minimum mandatory, that certainly sends a loud and clear message to the judiciary, that that's where you should be starting.”

But Marthage added that there should be room for judges to deviate from those requirements.

“We certainly have the cases where individuals should not do three years in jail for something for a second offense trafficking,” Marthage said.

Criminal justice reform advocates and defense attorneys have raised concerns about the proposed bill.

“Further criminalization is not the answer,” said Falko Schilling, advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. “We need to look upstream and try to make sure that people have supports and services because people who get involved in the drug trade often have substance use issues themselves.”

Defender General Matt Valerio said his office had constitutional concerns about the revised “knowingly” statute. And he said mandatory minimum sentences don’t work.

“They are no deterrent to people who are involved in sharing drugs and using drugs,” Valerio said in an interview on Thursday. “It's a good way to fill up your correctional centers.”

The Senate Judiciary plans to take up the bill again next week.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Liam Elder-Connors:


Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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