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Rescuing 911: West Virginia House passes bill creating penalties for first responder fentanyl exposure

Delegates Matthew Rohrbach, left, and Mike Pushkin talk prior to Monday’s vote on a bill providing penalties for exposing first responders to fentanyl. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — Members of the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Monday providing additional penalties for people charged with exposing police or emergency first responders to fentanyl.

House Bill 2184, increasing the penalties for exposure of governmental representatives to fentanyl or any other harmful drug, passed 94-2 with Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, and Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, voting no.

HB 2184 creates a new crime for anyone who intentionally or unlawfully possesses fentanyl or any other dangerous chemical and exposes law enforcement officers, fire or medical first responders, correctional employees, healthcare providers, utility workers, or any other government officials.

If the exposure results in injury, the person can be charged with a felony, though an amendment to the bill adopted on Friday would immunize someone from charges if that person attempts to offer emergency care to the exposed person at the scene of the accident, otherwise known as the Good Samaritan law.

“Essentially, of the last five years in West Virginia if not more, there has been a steady increase in fentanyl that’s coming over our borders unfortunately,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha. “Sometimes, our government workers and emergency service personnel are getting exposed to this dangerous substance which has resulted in injury.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid more powerful than morphine used to treat extreme pain. Illegally manufactured fentanyl is often combined with heroin, but too much fentanyl can cause fatal overdoses.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Data Dashboard, 992 fentanyl overdose deaths occurred in 2020, accounting for nearly 75 percent of drug overdose deaths that year.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, just a small amount of fentanyl inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause severe respiratory issues and possibly death depending on the level of exposure. Both the CDC and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides resources for first responders and law enforcement for dealing with possible exposure.

House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, was the lead sponsor of the bill. Rohrbach, a physician, said he sees the bill as a way to better protect EMS workers and police.

“This is a bill to try to help our first responders, our ladies and gentlemen who go out and work on behalf of each and every one of us,” Rohrbach said. “They put themselves often in bad situations. They do it for us. This is a bill that says we are going to give some extra protections to those individuals who are putting themselves on the line for each and every one of us in this chamber every day.”

Fleischauer and Pushkin said the bill was redundant, with lawmakers having previously beefed up state code to increase penalties for possession of fentanyl. They said the bill would not provide additional deterrent and it would be difficult to prove someone intended to expose someone else to fentanyl.

“I understand that fentanyl is a growing problem, but we also have a growing problem of our prison population,” Fleischauer said. “West Virginia had the highest percentage by far of people admitted to our correctional systems during the pandemic. We exceed the bed space. This is already a crime. We’re tacking on an additional penalty.”

“Oftentimes, people have the intent to possess something else and wind up with fentanyl in the product,” Pushkin said. “On practical matters, I think it’s going to be very, very tough to convict somebody of. We increased the penalties, we increased the sentences, we increased the fines, and guess what? Four years later, we have a worse fentanyl problem.”

Delegate Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, is a former member of the West Virginia State Police. Pinson said whether the bill serves as a deterrent was irrelevant as it is meant to make fentanyl exposure for first responders a crime.

“I remind you the purpose of the bill is to create a penalty when someone knowingly possesses, and as a result of that known possession then exposes someone to this fentanyl,” Pinson said. “I would say there are some folks that need to be protected and some folks who need to be prosecuted.”

Delegate Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, a registered nurse, said hospital doctors and nurses are well aware of the dangers of fentanyl exposure and could use additional protections.

“We have an EMS crisis in the state,” Tully said. “These people go out, they pick up patients that have overdosed and they’re also putting themselves at risk. We have to show them that we support them in their jobs.”

HB 2184 now heads to the Senate for consideration. The House also passed House Bill 2972, allowing a person to manufacture a stated amount of alcoholic liquor for personal consumption, and House Bill 3303, relating to clarifying the process of filling vacancies on ballots.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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