Legislators debate penalties for drug use while pregnant

A local legislator made her case again last month for a bill criminalizing controlled substance use while pregnant.

Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, introduced House Bill 85 during this year’s legislative session, with co-sponsors including Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, and Wyoming Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, who represents part of Fremont County.

The bill was approved by the Wyoming House but failed in the Senate.

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“It went down in flames … in grand fashion, from what I hear,” Oakley told the state’s Judiciary Committee last month during a meeting in Lander.

HB 85 would have made it a felony to knowingly consume methamphetamine and other illegal narcotics while pregnant, unless the drugs are prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional.

The offense would have been punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000, or both, with addiction assessments and treatments required for first-time offenders, who also may be eligible for a deferred sentence.

‘Absurd’ plan

During the debate in the Senate, legislators argued that the punishments outlined in HB 85 would only cause more harm, potentially preventing pregnant people from seeking prenatal care or addiction treatment.

Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the state should instead offer “amnesty” to pregnant people who seek treatment for their addictions.

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“That’s the bill I want to see,” he said. “I don’t want to see a bill that’s going to lock somebody up or convict them. … It doesn’t work in the case of addiction.”

Even the provision that allows for treatment instead of incarceration for first-time offenders is flawed, Wyoming Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer said, since there are not enough resources in the state to care for citizens suffering from addiction.

“Those spots … are not available,” Baldwin said. “We have huge waiting lists.”

Those spots are expensive too, Wyoming Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said, guessing that most pregnant people who would be affected by HB 85 don’t have health insurance and can’t afford addiction treatment.

“That’s the reality of how absurd this plan actually is,” Nethercott said, suggesting that a legislative committee – like the Judiciary Committee, which she co-chairs – should take up the topic during the interim.

‘Unfunded mandate’

When Oakley re-introduced HB 85 to the Judiciary Committee last month, she agreed that treatment programs present the best option for pregnant people suffering from addiction – but she also argued that pregnant, addicted people are more likely to participate in treatment if it is mandated by the courts.

If the purpose of the bill is to provide treatment, Wyoming Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, asked if it would be possible to remove the felony provision, which makes it difficult for convicted people to attain employment and housing down the road and results in increased recidivism.

“There are significant ramifications and unintended consequences (on) the felony route,” Nethercott agreed, asking whether any addiction treatment professionals in the audience could offer “different options.”

Sunny Goggles-Duran, the director of the White Buffalo Recovery Center in Fremont County, suggested civil prosecution and involuntary commitment as an alternative to felony convictions for pregnant people suffering from addiction.

She pointed out that most addicted people who are incarcerated actually leave custody with their addiction problem still intact, because “there are not a lot of services in the correctional facilities for treatment.”

In fact, she said, “there is a lot of substance abuse within our criminal justice system,” and “a lot of our people are still using while they’re in prison.”

“Until somebody gets treatment services, that addiction is going to stay with them, no matter how long you put them in jail,” she said.

The missing piece is funding, according to Andi Summerville, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers.

She estimated it would cost up to $10 million to provide services to the pregnant people currently suffering from addictions in Wyoming.

Without that financial support from the state, Summerville said HB 85, with its requirement to offer addiction treatment services to first-time offenders, represents an “unfunded mandate.”

“(There is) an overwhelming demand for the scant resources we have already,” Summerville said. “(We need) substantial discussion regarding what the state expects from the community mental health system … and how it’s going to be funded going forwared.”

No changes

The Judiciary Committee voted to move forward with HB 85 last month without making any changes to the bill proposal.

Wyoming Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and represents part of Fremont County, called the bill “a real positive thing,” though he acknowledged that it might be a good idea to “take the felony provisions out of it.”

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for September.

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