A bill would create a new felony-level charge in Utah called a ‘drug-induced homicide’

Mindy Vincent is fighting SB254, which would allow drug sellers to be prosecuted in overdose deaths.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mindy Vincent on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Vincent lost her sister, Maline Hairup, pictured, to a heroin overdose in 2014. She's fighting against a new Utah bill, SB254, that would have also taken away her brother, to jail, for providing the drugs.

Update: SB254 didn’t pass in the 2023 legislative session.

Drug addiction took the life of Maline Hairup after a worried doctor refused to prescribe her any more painkillers and she turned to heroin in desperation.

Dealing with the loss of her sister was crushing enough, said Mindy Vincent. But under new legislation being proposed this session, she could have lost her brother on top of that. The bill would open a person up to prosecution and incarceration for selling a drug in an overdose death. Her brother sold their sister the heroin for $20 when she begged him for help, Vincent said.

Having him imprisoned, “it would have destroyed my family two times over and then some,” Vincent told lawmakers during a committee hearing Tuesday. “You’d be taking two lives instead of one.”

Vincent is currently leading the fight against SB254, which would create a new felony-level charge in Utah called a “drug-induced homicide,” targeting those selling illegal drugs that lead to a death.

It is a complicated proposal that is dividing social workers, family members, lawyers and law enforcement officers trying to respond to the drug crisis or left in its wake. So far, the bill has passed an initial vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it faces an uphill battle with just a little more than a week left in the session.

The measure comes from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, an attorney who said he wants to be able to crack down on illicit drug sales, particularly fentanyl. The synthetic opioid has flooded Utah and the U.S., pushed by cartels and causing overdose deaths to spike.

In the state, fentanyl overdoses specifically have increased by 300% over three years. In 2021 alone, the drug killed 170 people here, according to the Utah Department of Health and a recent investigation by The Washington Post.

As currently written, SB254 would allow a person to be prosecuted in a drug-induced homicide for selling an illegal drug in exchange for money, property or services of any kind, if that substance causes or contributes to the buyer’s death. That would include people like Vincent’s brother — even if the death was not intentional.

“He didn’t want my sister to die,” Vincent told The Salt Lake Tribune. “He loved her. He was just trying to help her in the way he knew how. He didn’t even want to give her the heroin, but she pleaded with him for a week.”

Her brother, Vincent said, was 30 years old at the time and also dealing with addiction to painkillers after a basketball injury; he had transitioned to heroin to cope. He told his family that he sold some of his supply, which he got from a dealer, to his sister. She died in 2014 at the age of 38 after her first use.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mindy Vincent Wednesday, February 22, 2023. Vincent lost her sister, Maline Hairup, pictured, to a heroin overdose in 2014. She's fighting against a new Utah bill, SB254, that would have also taken away her brother to jail for providing the drugs.

Vincent doesn’t believe the bill would actually deter drug use or drug sales. Her family, she said, has been ravaged by addiction. Maline Hairup was on painkillers, including the opioid OxyContin, for 15 years as she dealt with multiple medical and emotional health conditions; she wasn’t offered an alternative when her doctor could not longer prescribe the pills, her sister said. Her brother abused painkillers after his injury, as her dad did following multiple surgeries, Vincent said. She said she used meth herself for years before getting sober.

She now runs — and founded — the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, which provides recovery services for those struggling with addiction. And Vincent is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in drug treatment.

Prosecuting an individual who sold a drug doesn’t solve the problem, Vincent said. It victimizes members of families like hers, she added, who get stuck in the tornado of addiction and can’t get the care they really need. Going after the actual supplier — the big-time dealers — wouldn’t actually happen with this bill, Vincent believes.

And she thinks buyers would be more likely to find more illicit underground sources for drugs, making it more dangerous to be a user in the end. More funding for therapy or treatment programs, Vincent said, would go further to addressing the root of the issue, as opposed to jail time.

“Underneath addiction is always a struggle,” she said. “And you have to deal with those reasons to really help.”

Her brother, she added, “is already living in a prison in his mind. He thinks he killed his sister.”

He has tried to get sober but the guilt has weighed on him, Vincent said, and she doesn’t know where he is now. She noted: “It’s a health issue. It’s not a criminal issue. And punishment doesn’t work.”

Those opposed to the bill also worry about the potential for it to have a chilling effect on people deciding whether to call for help when someone overdoses — which Utah has specifically tried to destigmatize in recent years.

There is no reason for someone to report a death to police if the investigation would then reveal they provided the drug, added Mark Moffat, a criminal defense attorney. And the definitions in the bill, he said, are “overly broad” as to what selling a drug would include, such as giving drugs in exchange for a place to stay or a ride.

“Too many people would get swept up in this bill,” he said.

The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also voted to oppose the measure. A representative with the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council, a subset within CCJJ, said members do not support the bill.

But a member of the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office, Will Carlson, said he supports the bill this year. Last year, Weiler sponsored a similar measure that would allow anyone distributing a drug in an overdose death to be prosecuted; it didn’t pass. This year, it’s more limited to those who sell or profit in some way off the drug market.

The Utah Attorney General’s office backs the proposal, as well.

Weiler acknowledged “good arguments on both sides” but said he brought the bill to the Legislature after seeing no other viable options.

The senator said he feels the illicit drug market in Utah is “really raging out of control,” including fentanyl being mixed with other substances unknown to the buyer and being sold to kids and teens.

“I think people who are handing out pills that can kill ought to take notice,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. … People are dying.”

He agreed to make changes to the definitions in the bill — to make it less broad — before the measure is heard on the Senate floor. It passed in committee Tuesday on a 2-1 vote. Weiler, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, voted in favor of his own proposal. Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, voted against it.

The committee typically has six members, but three are members of legislative leadership. Those three were not in attendance at the Tuesday meeting, but even without them, the committee is considered to be at quorum and able to vote with the other three members.

Vincent said she’s disappointed by the first tally but will continue to push against the measure.

When she attended her sister’s funeral, she remembers people telling her: “No offense, Mindy, but we really thought it would be you who died.”

She knows addiction and wants to find ways to help people recover. She doesn’t think SB254 will stop the drug use that killed her sister.