Governor Charlie Baker plans to strengthen state sentencing laws for drug dealers, protect witnesses and bring the state more in line with federal drug classification. Baker's pitch to crack down on drug violence amidst the opiate epidemic is far-reaching, with elements that may fall flat once introduced to the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
The legislation, announced Wednesday at the Devine Recovery Center in South Boston, would bring Massachusetts in line with new federal drug classifications to close loopholes that could mean new drugs from the fentanyl family of opiates wouldn't actually be illegal to sell.
"Fentanyl is out there right now," Baker said, adding that the even more deadly drug mixture carfentanil is already showing up in neighboring New Hampshire. "Carfentanil is right around the corner. If nobody does anything with respect to carfentanil, a far more dangerous opiate than anything that we've seen on the street to date is going to become part of the mix here in Massachusetts, and it will not be a crime to distribute and sell it."
One leading Democrat is critical of Baker's plan to line up what the state calls a dangerous drug with what the feds do.
"The federal decisions about what level something should be at might not be our decisions," warned Senator William Brownsberger, the Senate Judiciary chairman.
Brownsberger acknowledged that marijuana, which is legal here, is exempt from Baker's proposal, "but as an example of the federal thought process, that is at the level of most dangerous drugs in the federal system. So what else are they going to put at that level that we might not agree with? That's the kind of concern that we need to think through."
Brownsberger agreed that the state needs to get ahead of new drugs like carfentanil before they hit the already-reeling Massachusetts opiate addict population. The Watertown Democrat said the state needs "to make sure that we can respond to those with prosecutions when appropriate," he said. "We don't want people skating under the radar distributing the latest boutique chemical that is just another variation of an existing poison."
Baker's bill would institute a mandatory five-year prison sentence and allow judges to sentence dealers to life in prison when a drug sale leads to the death of a buyer.
Baker likened the policy to the one currently governing manslaughter while drunk driving. Both the drunk driving law and Baker's bill require a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison for a crime that leads to death.
"When illegal drug distribution causes a death, laws that were designed to punish the act are inadequate to recognize the seriousness of the resulting harm," Baker wrote in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the bill.
Brownsberger said Wednesday afternoon that kind of mandatory punishment could lead to casual distributors -- say, a person giving a hit to a friend -- to avoid seeking medical help if their companion overdoses, because they're afraid they'll got to jail for five years.
"This concept could result in more deaths rather than less deaths, so it's one that I think that we have to really think very carefully about how it's going to work," Brownsberger said.
Baker's bill would also strengthen the state's witness protection law to cover retaliation and gives greater protection to witnesses families, court officers and law enforcement officials.
Devonte Mauge-Franklin was targeted after he cooperated with police about a shooting. The Mattapan 16-year-old was stabbed to death on New Year's Eve in 2008 while riding an MBTA bus. His mother, Aretha Mauge, now says the state must do more to protect witnesses from attempts to silence them.
"They're saying things and they're getting killed and then the case gets dropped, which is what happened to Devante. Because he's died, his case is no longer good. I mean, that doesn't make no sense. But that's the way it is. That's the way the law is," Mauge said.
Brownsberger agreed with some of the other points in Baker's proposal, such as increasing protection for witnesses of crimes and closing loopholes that could allow new drugs to hit the streets before they're classified as illegal, but he's not on board with Baker's plan to adopt federal classification standards.
The Legislature may include portions of Baker's anti-drug trade bill when it debates changes to the criminal justice system this fall.
Baker wrote in his letter that the state should continue to focus on fighting addiction through education and recovery services.
"While maintaining that focus, however, we should also ensure that those who cause our citizens the most harm by illegally selling drugs that kill people are held accountable for their actions," Baker wrote.