‘Austin’s Law’ would increase penalties for fentanyl sale, distribution

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(The Center Square) — Georgia lawmakers passed a measure during this legislative session that ostensibly aims to stem fentanyl and drug overdose deaths, but at least one expert said the measure could have unintended consequences.

Senate Bill 465, “Austin’s Law,” aims to target the sale and distribution of substances such as fentanyl. It creates a new criminal offense of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison.

“I am hopeful that the passage of ‘Austin’s Law’ will help to prevent the senseless deaths of Georgians,” Lt. Governor Burt Jones, a Republican, said in a statement. “With the passage of this bill, those who traffic illicit substances like fentanyl will be held accountable for their deadly actions.”

Brian Townsend, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and a professional development speaker and coach, said Georgia officials are right to pass the measure and said more states should follow as illicit fentanyl is a public health crisis.

“Implementing ‘Austin’s Law’ in Georgia sends a strong message against the deadly distribution of fentanyl, potentially deterring dealers,” Brian Townsend, a former DEA agent and a professional development speaker and coach, told The Center Square via email. “Taxpayers are burdened by the societal costs of substance use disorder (addiction) and drug poisonings/overdoses. Any law that allows the state to hold people accountable for their deadly actions can potentially deter others, save lives, and save taxpayer expenses.”

However, Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of state advocacy and criminal legal reform at the Drug Policy Alliance, said the law could have unintended consequences.

“Unfortunately, laws for drug-induced homicide, like ‘Austin’s Law,’ end up punishing family, friends, or people involved in low-level selling, not reduce drug use, sales or deadly overdoses that are often fentanyl-involved,” Kaltenbach told The Center Square via email. “But they do cost lives because fear of prosecution deters people from seeking help in an emergency.

“They also cost taxpayers dollars because harsh drug laws will continue to fill our courtrooms, morgues and prisons,” Kaltenbach added. “The best way to address the overdose crisis is through continued investment in public health resources and services rather than doubling down on the deeply flawed, unjust, and failed punitive approaches of the past.”