Delaware fights drug war with new overdose legislation

     Members of the House and Senate, as well as health officials, advocates and families of overdose victims, announced the legislation at Legislative Hall in Dover. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

    Members of the House and Senate, as well as health officials, advocates and families of overdose victims, announced the legislation at Legislative Hall in Dover. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

    Bi-partisan agreement leads to two new bills aimed at reducing drug related deaths.

    Brock Cerklefskie was described as a smart, athletic young man who was outgoing and kind to everyone he met. But his life was cut short in August after he suffered a drug overdose after a long battle with addiction.

    Cerklefskie was one of at least 180 individuals the state’s health department reports died of a drug overdose in Delaware last year—and all the numbers haven’t been collected yet. In 2014, there were 189 heroin related deaths.

    The state has the 9th highest drug overdose rate in the nation and the 5th highest rate of opiate prescriptions per capita.

    Now legislators are introducing two bills, one of which is written in Cerklefskie’s honor, to reduce overdose deaths by enforcing harsher penalties on drug dealers, and by collecting data to better serve individuals struggling with addiction.

    “Hopefully he’s looking down and he’s proud, and if we’re able to save someone, one is better than none,” said Cerklefskie’s mother, Lisa.

    The bi-partisan bills are sponsored by Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middleton, Rep. Timothy Dukes, R-Laurel, and several other senators and representatives, and have the support of Attorney General Matt Denn, D-Delaware, and advocates and health experts in the state.

    House Bill 239 would hold drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths in Delaware by creating a new crime, “drug dealing—resulting in death,” a Class B felony punishable by two to 25 years in prison.

    “House Bill 239 was birthed out of pain, out of loss and ultimately death,” Dukes said during the announcement at Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday.

    According to Denn, drug dealing is the only instance when knowingly committing an illegal act that results in death doesn’t result in a minimum sentence.

    “They will be difficult cases to prosecute, but when we can we should,” he said. “I absolutely agree we can’t arrest our way out of the problem, but at the same time it is important we are able to deal with the criminal aspects of it effectively.”

    Lisa Cerkefskie said she believes it’s an important piece of legislation because reducing the supply could save lives.

    “Hopefully it will get a drug dealer off the street and that drug dealer can get some help, and if you get one drug dealer, who knows? You may get another and another, and hopefully that drug dealer doesn’t deal to someone to where that someone is going to lose their life, and that person will get some help also,” she said.

    The second, Senate Bill 174, would create a Drug Overdose Fatality Review Commission to examine the circumstances of deaths resulting from prescription opioid, fentanyl and heroin overdoses and make recommendations to the state as to how to prevent them.

    The commission would operate similarly to a board the state created to review domestic violence and child abuse victims. It would cultivate data, identify trends and make recommendations to the Department of Justice.

    Those sponsoring the bill and health officials say the data will answer unknown questions about where individuals are receiving drugs, what led to their addiction and if more monitoring or regulations could have prevented the addiction.

    The data will also help the health department identify what it could have done to prevent overdoses of individuals already seeking help, and how the agency could intervene earlier to provide help to those who don’t already receive it.

    “It seemed like we were just talking the talk, and with the task force I’m hoping we can take it and walk,” Hall-Long said.

    She said she hopes there will be more legislation dedicated to drug addiction prevention in the near future.

    “Substance abuse crosses all economic strati, all backgrounds, all races, so prevention would be a real stronghold,” Hall-Long said.

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