Fentanyl dealers could face felony manslaughter charges over deaths

Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, presented Senate Bill 465, or "Austin's Law" on the House floor on Mar. 20, 2024. (Credit: Georgia House)

The Gist

A bill that will create a new type of offense — felony aggravated involuntary manslaughter — for selling fentanyl to someone who dies from taking the potent drug passed in the House and the Senate on Wednesday, and now goes to the governor for his consideration.

What’s Happening

Senate Bill 465, also known as “Austin’s Law,” is named after Austin Walters, a 30-year-old Valdosta man who, said bill sponsor Sen. Russ Goodman, suffered from anxiety and depression and unknowingly bought a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl “off the street” in 2021. Walters died soon after taking it.

His parents, Gus and Beth Walters worked with Goodman, R-Cogdell, and other lawmakers over the last year and a half to promote the legislation, testifying at several hearings. They were present when the bill passed unanimously in both chambers yesterday.

Gus Walters (left) and Beth Walters listen to discussion in the House about Senate Bill 465, named after their late son Austin who died of a fentanyl overdose, with the bill’s lead sponsor Sen. Russ Goodman, on Mar. 20, 2024. (Credit: Georgia House)

SB 465 says a person commits the felony of aggravated involuntary manslaughter when they unintentionally cause the death of someone “by intentionally manufacturing or selling any substance that contains fentanyl, after representing that substance was any controlled substance.” Dealers could be prosecuted under the new law whether or not they knew the drug they sold contained fentanyl. Penalties range from a minimum of 10 years to 30 years or life imprisonment.

After some pushback from criminal defense attorneys, the bill was amended by the House to more narrowly target the manufacturers and major dealers of fentanyl, and not small-time distributors and users who share drugs. The House also added a provision to outlaw the possession of a pill press or other device used to make counterfeit controlled substances that often look like pharmaceutical-grade drugs.

“You buy a pill that you think to be a legitimate pill … and you go to sleep and you don’t wake up,” said Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, the Majority Whip who presented the bill on the House floor on behalf of Goodman, a close colleague. Choking up as he spoke, Burchett said, “In my district in the last month we’ve had three overdoses of fentanyl. … This is literally an epidemic that we’ve got to get ahold of.”

Other lawmakers tearfully shared stories of relatives and constituents lost to fentanyl overdoses, including Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, who said his 33-year-old cousin, a talented musician who had turned the corner on drug addiction and was recently promoted at his job, “had one slip-up” and died last year. “Let’s save lives,” he said in support of the bill.

Why It Matters

Georgia, like the rest of the country, is in the midst of an opioid crisis that the U.S. Department of Health has deemed a national public health emergency. More than half a million people have died from opioid-involved overdoses since 1999.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, all drug overdose deaths in Georgia increased by 62% from 2019 to 2021, while fentanyl-involved overdose deaths increased by 232%. In 2022, nearly 2,000 Georgians died from fentanyl.

Rep. Deborah Silcox, R-Sandy Springs (Credit: Georgia House)

“We all know overdoses from fentanyl have been rising at an alarming rate with no signs of slowing down,” said Rep. Deborah Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, an attorney who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee that helped to shape the legislation. 

Noting that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, she said, “It only takes a tiny amount to make this substance a fatal overdose. And tragically many who consume illicit drugs have no idea that fentanyl has been mixed into substances they’re actually using.”

Silcox said SB 465 “will hold drug dealers accountable for the damage they cause. … By enacting strict penalties for anyone complicit in fentanyl overdose, we send a strong message to all of Georgia that we will not tolerate poison on our streets and we will aggressively pursue anyone that pushes it on unsuspecting victims.”

The amended bill passed 175-0 in the House and then 53-0 in the Senate. 

What’s Next

The bill, a priority of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Gov. Brian Kemp, will be sent to the governor for his review. He is expected to sign it.

Rep. Tanya Miller (Credit: Georgia House)

During a discussion of the bill in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee last week, Rep.Tanya Miller, D-Atlanta, a former prosecutor, said, “I don’t want us to stop here. I want us to look at the problem of drug addiction and mental illness and depression and anxiety and people who self-treat those things, and figure out a combination of tools to combat this crisis in our communities. … I appreciate this tool but I want to also encourage my colleagues to think outside the punitive box when we’re talking about drug addiction and death and suicide.”

Burchett responded that the House has voted this session to approve bills that would make the opioid reversal drug Narcan available through vending machines (House Bill 1035) and overdose kits (House Bill 1170) to be located in public buildings and schools throughout the state. Those bills are now pending in the Senate (though HB 1170 is now weighted down with a controversial amendment by senators to ban puberty-blocking drugs for transgender minors).

Have questions or comments? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajillor at [email protected]

And subscribe to State Affairs so you do not miss an update.

Facebook @StateAffairsGA
LinkedIn @StateAffairs