Are longer prison sentences the best way to handle the opioid crisis, or would North Carolina be better off with a bigger focus on treating addiction and other issues at the root of the crisis?
That question erupted into a lengthy debate Wednesday at the North Carolina General Assembly, where lawmakers disagreed over a proposal to significantly increase the criminal punishment for people caught breaking into pharmacies, as well as the punishment for anyone who buys stolen pills.
Republican Rep. Carson Smith, a new legislator who was previously the Pender County Sheriff, said people convicted of breaking into pharmacies (or anything else) are usually guilty of a Class H felony. Convictions on that kind of felony can lead to between four months and two years in prison, according to state sentencing guidelines.
Smith’s bill, House Bill 212, would increase it to a Class D felony — punishable by as many as 160 months, or more than 13 years, in prison.
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That’s the same punishment as for crimes like voluntary manslaughter. And it’s more serious than the punishment for crimes like injuring law enforcement officers or taking indecent liberties with children.
“I think it sends a message that says, ‘Look, if you break into a pharmacy with the intent to get opioids on the street, we’re going to punish you,’” Smith said during a debate Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee.
Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, who was previously a judge in Durham, said if Smith’s bill passes then people who are convicted of trafficking cocaine and heroin would face a lighter sentence than people who break into a pharmacy. And the lengthy punishment would apply to anyone who broke into a business with a pharmacy, she said, even if they didn’t end up taking any prescription pills.
“I think we’re going just a little too far,” she said.
But the bill is supported by the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, a business lobbying group.
Morey suggested keeping the general idea of raising the level of punishment for people who break into pharmacies. But instead of making it equal to manslaughter, Morey suggested a smaller hike from a Class H to a Class G felony. That would be punished by a maximum of nearly three years, instead of 13, and it’s the same punishment for people convicted of dealing opioids.
She said it doesn’t make sense that people who break into pharmacies would be punished more harshly than drug dealers, especially since many who break in are likely to be addicts, not dealers.
But the committee shot down Morey’s changes, then voted to approve the bill as Smith originally filed it. Now it goes to the House Rules Committee for another layer of vetting and debate.
Wilmington, which is directly south of the area Smith represents, was rated the city with the highest rate of opioid abuse in the country by a study published in 2016, the Wilmington Star News reported.
Morey asked if it wouldn’t be easier to stop pills from hitting the streets by requiring pharmacies to keep their narcotics locked in safes. According to a 2016 report by the Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Company, 74 percent of pharmacies don’t have safes. But that suggestion was also shot down as being too expensive for many businesses.
In addition to the increased penalties for breaking into a pharmacy, the bill would increase the penalty for anyone who buys pills they either know were stolen or believe might have been stolen. While many cases involving possession of stolen goods face a maximum of two years, this bill would create a new maximum sentence of nearly four years for buying stolen pills.
Some Democratic lawmakers asked whether locking up people for longer periods of time is really the smartest way to address the opioid crisis.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, asked why not spend money on addiction treatment programs instead of the prison system.
“You’re increasing that penalty, sticking that person in prison at great expense to taxpayers, when that person needs treatment,” she said.
But several times the committee chair, Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Sarah Stevens, shut down the Democrats’ questions on alternative methods of addressing the opioid crisis. She said they might be good questions, but they had nothing to do with the specific bill up for discussion.
That mindset, said Democratic Rep. Billy Richardson of Fayetteville, is what leads politicians to address big problems piece by piece instead of with wide-ranging, thoughtful solutions.
”I think this is a well-intentioned bill ... but another thing we fail to do constantly is we get a major issue — water, education, the opioid crisis — and we don’t attack it globally,” Richardson said.
Most deaths from heroin, not just pills
It’s unclear how common pharmacy break-ins are now. According to the Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Company analysis from 2016, reports of break-ins nationwide were on the decline in 2014 and 2015.
But numerous studies have shown the opioid crisis has hit rural communities more than urban ones, and the break-in data shows the same.
“Some of the largest claims experienced by Pharmacists Mutual member companies happened in towns of less than 10,000 population and rural areas,” the report says.
A focus on pills alone ignores a large part of the opioid crisis. The most recent data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows that heroin and fentanyl are increasingly found in fatal overdose cases.
DHHS data shows that in the three-month period of October-December 2016, 58.7 percent of accidental opioid overdose deaths involved heroin or fentanyl. That number spiked to 85.5 percent two years later, in the final months of 2018.
The total number of overdose deaths also increased from 2016 to 2018, and the number of hospital emergency room visits for overdoses increased by more than 50 percent.