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Gov. Baker wants higher penalties for drug deals ending in death

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has proposed a new penalty for drug dealers when the substances they sell end in the user's death. Currently, there is no state statute specifically touching on the issue. The proposed new law would require a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years and a possible penalty of life imprisonment for drug distribution causing 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 to the state legislature, according to MassLive. He says the bill is backed by the Massachusetts Major City Police Chiefs Association, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

Another aspect of the bill is that it links state-level drug classifications for new drugs to the federal controlled substance schedules. This would allow for the quick criminalization of new drugs while leaving the state authority to make its own decisions.

A Baker spokesperson explained that when dangerous new drugs appear on the scene, the federal government can move quickly to get it listed on the drug schedules in the federal Controlled Substances Act. This is because the DEA has emergency scheduling powers.

"If state laws lag behind it makes sense to adopt federal scheduling, as other states have, to ensure police can take action when they encounter lethal new drugs out on the streets," the spokesperson said.

However, critics say the DEA's emergency powers allow it to criminalize substances that aren't very dangerous, restricting liberty and commerce without good reason. Moreover, as we know from marijuana, the federal government is loath to remove substances from the CSA schedules even when there is substantial evidence that they are not harmful or are possibly beneficial. Criminalization of substances also brings scientific study to a halt.

Other aspects of the proposed law include changes to existing laws surrounding murder for hire and witness intimidation. A 2006 rewrite of the witness intimidation law and a 2011 Supreme Judicial Court decision resulted in the law not applying to retaliatory conduct. Solicitation to commit murder is currently a misdemeanor in Massachusetts, which has required the state to seek federal assistance to obtain appropriate penalties in such cases. Baker's bill would change that.

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