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House passes bill for tougher penalties on drug trafficking

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Tuesday to ramp up penalties for those convicted of bringing illicit drugs into the state.

Upon full approval, HB 2579, which passed 88-10, would increase the minimum penalty for an offender convicted of bringing a Schedule I or Schedule II narcotic into West Virginia to 10 years, with a maximum of 30 years.

Current legislation calls for one to 15 years in prison for the same offenders.

The bill would also increase sentencing for those convicted of bringing in any other Schedule I, II or III drug for a minimum of five years and a maximum of 15 years, and/or a fine of $15,000. The bill also carves out an exception for marijuana (a Schedule I drug), calling for a sentence of between one and five years, and/or a fine of $15,000.

Likewise, the legislation stiffens penalties on those who bring Schedule IV and V drugs into the state as well.

Unlike most surrounding states and federal sentencing guidelines, the legislation does not discriminate regarding how much of the illegal substances offenders bring into the state, or whether they have been convicted of the same crime in the past.

During the debate, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, said given increased demand, the distribution of heroin can be a profitable enterprise, and the code needs to deter would-be dealers from entering the business.

“We’ve been told a person can ship heroin into this state and earn $25,000 to $40,000 per month,” he said. “In that case, is that one to 15 [years] penalty enough to discourage somebody from that type of activity?”

Along with Shott, Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said some representatives are opposing the bill because of the added costs of incarceration and enforcement, but they’re neglecting the toll heroin takes on communities.

“It’s about the misery, the broken families, the lost opportunity that’s incurred in this state from substance abuse,” he said. “That’s the fiscal note I want to see from this bill.”

Opposing the bill, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said although it may be well intentioned, the bill will have economic consequences due to the increased load it will create on the prison system.

“We can’t afford it,” he said. “Future delegates that sit in our seat in the next decade, they’re going to curse us all, because they’re going to be forced to build a new prison to undergo the damages we’re about to do today.”

Sponaugle went on to compare the sentence under the bill for bringing heroin into West Virginia (10 years to 30 years) with that of murder in the second degree (10 to 40 years), attempt to kill or injure by poison (three to 18 years) and voluntary manslaughter (three to 15 years)

Other House Democrats including Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, and Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, pushed back against the bill, noting its emphasis on punitive matters rather than prevention and rehabilitation.

In contrast to the idea that the bill is an additional burden to the state, Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, called the measure a “job creator” due to the likelihood of it warranting the creation of a new prison in the state.

He voted in favor of the bill, and said during debate he hopes any new prisons built in the state end up in the state’s southwestern region.

Should the legislation pass through the Senate and Governor’s office, West Virginia’s inbound trafficking laws would prove one of the strictest in the region.

In Virginia, the penalty for bringing a Schedule I or Schedule II drug into the state is a mandatory minimum of three years, with a range of five to 10 years. Subsequent offenses would lead to a mandatory minimum of 10 years.

In Kentucky, the penalty for trafficking heroin into the state qualifies as a Class C felony, leading to a sentence of between five and 10 years.

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