Drug dealers could face murder charges as Utah lawmakers get tougher on opioids

SALT LAKE CITY -- Faced with an epidemic of nearly one death per day, Utah lawmakers are planning a series of bills to crack down on opioids.

New figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Utah continues to have higher than average overdose deaths.

Overdose death averages in the United States (via CDC)

"Eighty percent of the people that overdosed on heroin started innocently enough with a prescription opioid," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

Rep. Eliason is one of several lawmakers drafting bills to help educate people and crack down on illegal opioids. One would make drug-induced deaths a homicide. For example, if a drug dealer were to sell someone heroin laced with fentanyl and it resulted in death.

"They could be charged with homicide," he said in an interview Friday with FOX 13. "We hope that dis-incentivizes drug dealers from giving out the deadliest drugs of all."

Another bill Rep. Eliason has drafted would force health care companies to report to police if an employee was diverting drugs or selling them on the side. He also plans to require pharmacies to hand out pamphlets with any prescription opioid that discusses addiction.

"Addiction can happen in three to seven days in some people," he said. "It'll talk about how to dispose of or properly store medication so someone in the household, or a neighbor, doesn't get all of them. Also, it says people don't need to take the whole script for pain."

Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is also running another bill dealing with opioids. She intends to require assisted living centers to have policies in place for drug disposal. Too often, she said, the centers just throw unused pills and medications in the trash. Addicts can Dumpster dive, she said.

In addition to legislation, the state of Utah is contemplating getting involved in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies over opioid prescribing and whether it was pushed too much on patients. FOX 13 reported in November that House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was drafting counties and cities to sue "Big Pharma." Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has been working with a coalition of states considering litigation.

Sen. Mayne said it was her hope the legislation could empower people and help get control of the crisis.

"We have to get a handle on this," Mayne said of the opioid bills. "Lives are being lost."