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Mother's grief spurs NY bill targeting opioid dealers in deaths

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COLONIE, N.Y. -- Four years after Patty Farrell found her 18-year-old daughter lying cold and blue in bed from an overdose, the former police detective hopes to see heroin dealers charged with homicide when their product kills.

"She was the love of my life, my only child," says Farrell, whose home is like a shrine to her daughter with photos and keepsakes everywhere. "When I lost her, I lost my world."

A bill named for her daughter, Laree, would create a new criminal classification of "homicide by sale of an opiate-controlled substance," punishable by 15 to 25 years in prison. It has passed the state Senate and awaits action by the Assembly as the Legislative session moves into its final week.

Proponents say tougher penalties would help reduce overdoses. But critics say the focus should be on prevention, treatment and saving lives, and that similar "drug-induced homicide laws" in more than 20 other states are a step backward among failed aspects of the "war on drugs."

"We need people to be willing to call for help whenever someone is in trouble," says Kassandra Frederique, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "People don't call for help when they fear criminal justice consequences."

More than 33,000 people died from heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs in 2015, according to statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation. New York state was second in the nation for opioid overdose deaths in 2015 with more than 2,700, up from 562 in 2005.

A flurry of legislation aimed at curbing the overdose epidemic has been enacted or introduced in New York and other states. Since her daughter's death in the Albany suburb of Colonie in 2013, Farrell has lobbied state lawmakers on a broad range of measures including addiction-treatment insurance coverage, access to rehabilitation and curbing over-prescription of painkillers.

"They've taken care of some of the issues," says Farrell, who retired after 20 years with the Albany police and took a state job. "But they still haven't done anything enforcement-wise against the big drug dealer who's bringing heroin into our state and selling it to our families and killing them."

Earlier this year, the Legislature and Cuomo inserted $214 million in the state budget to boost treatment and prevention programs around the state.

"We need to take on the heroin epidemic from all sides," says Sen. George Amedore, a Republican who has sponsored the "Laree's Law" bill. "We need prevention, proper treatment and support for those in recovery, and we need to properly punish those that are bringing this drug onto our streets, and into our schools."

Amedore says the measure is aimed at "mid- to high-level" dealers. Language in the bill says it would not be used to prosecute users who share heroin or opioids with an acquaintance who later dies of an overdose.

Farrell says she'll probably never know who sold the lethal dose to her daughter, a high achiever who graduated from her suburban high school with an advanced Regents diploma when she was 16. Laree had only used heroin for four months and tried repeatedly to stay clean after rehabilitation, her mother said.

National on 06/19/2017

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