As the fentanyl crisis grows, Georgia lawmakers have set their eyes on holding someone accountable, pushing forward a bill that will make it easier to charge drug dealers with murder if their supply causes an overdose. 

The bill, also called Austin’s Law, is not the first attempt at stricter punishment for drug dealers. But after a unanimous vote in the state House on Wednesday, it is the first to clear both chambers of the General Assembly and to target fentanyl specifically. 

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are credited for the third wave of the opioid epidemic, which has been far more deadly than the waves of heroin or prescription pain pills. 

Back in November, five drug overdose deaths one after another over three days marked a record in Macon. The victims included a 33-year-old man, two brothers and a 44-year-old woman. 

Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones brought forward a warning during an opioid town hall two months later in January. 

We have a crisis here in Macon,” he told community members of an East Macon neighborhood. 

In the church auditorium, he pulled out folders dated by year. 

Sixty-six overdoses in three years,” Jones said, referring to 2021 onward. “I keep the stats. And I'm waiting on toxicology on two more, which more than likely is going to be fentanyl.”

Though often used effectively as a pain killer, part of why fentanyl has become so deadly is it’s showing up in lots of different substances. More often than not, the user doesn’t know it’s been laced in. 

“We have seen a huge increase in the overdose deaths because of the fentanyl,” said Bibb County narcotics officer  Brad Surfus. “But it's not only in cocaine. It's not only in your fake pills. It's been in marijuana. It's in the crystal meth.


A legal punishment for fatal outcomes

To help tackle overdose deaths, public health workers in Georgia have been pushing for access to the opioid-overdose reversal drug, naloxone, in government buildings and schools, and hosting trainings locally. 

Georgia lawmakers are choosing a different approach — providing a path for easier criminalization of fentanyl dealers. 

At the last committee hearing for Senate Bill 465 earlier this month, Gus Walters explained how his 30-year-old son, Austin, the namesake for the bill, died from fentanyl poisoning in 2021, after taking what he thought was Xanax. 

Please, let's put something in place to punish the people to the same extent that we feel punished,” he pleaded with lawmakers. 

Prosecutors in Georgia have arrested and charged suppliers of tainted drugs for overdoses a handful of times. In a 2023 case out of Cherokee County, a man pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after he gave a 20-year-old girl what she thought was percocet. And a 2021 case out of Gwinnett County marked a first for the county when a man pleaded guilty to felony murder for selling laced heroin that caused a father of two to overdose. 

But in the over 1,000 cases of fentanyl overdoses in Georgia every year, those are the exceptions. 

That’s because to charge felony murder, most cases require that prosecutors prove the person who supplied the drugs knew what they were selling. It’s called a mens rea statute. 

Pete Skandalakis with the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia says Austin’s Law removes that requirement. 

All you have to worry about is can you prove the sale or the manufacture of a controlled substance, and did that controlled substance have fentanyl in it,” Skandalakis said. 

If the accused is found to have manufactured or sold the illegal drug that caused an overdose death, they can be sentenced to 10 to 30 years or life in prison, whether the dealer knew there was fentanyl in the substance or not. 

Rather than felony murder, the charge here would be aggravated involuntary manslaughter. 

“There needed to be another tool in the toolbox, so to speak, to see if we could kind of stem the flow of these fentanyl related deaths and maybe hold people accountable,Skandalakis said. 

Senate Bill 465 also criminalizes the purchase, possession or use of unregulated pill presses. 


Measuring the effects of criminalization

Though lawmakers seemed to have tailored the bill precisely to target dealers and not users, some harm reduction workers have raised concerns about how the new law could affect use of Georgia’s Good Samaritan law, which removes liability in the case of an overdose if those around call 911 for help. 

Using evidence from her home state, medical anthropologist Jennifer Carroll worries so-called drug induced homicide laws make drug use more dangerous. 

When North Carolina passed its initial “death by distribution” law in 2019, Carroll, who teaches at North Carolina State University, was in the middle of a study on harm reduction in Haywood County. It became the perfect testing ground to understand how the law was affecting people in the drug market. 

What she found was drug users at a possible higher risk of overdose deaths. 

“The risk of overdose comes not from drug exposure but from the unpredictability of the drug supply,” Carroll said. Or, the unpredictability in drug potency.

It wasn’t that people were stopping using drugs under the new law. Instead, Carroll has seen dealers in a crackdown dilute their drugs’ strength, which encourages users to buy more for the same high. 

Crackdowns also mean trusted drug dealers may get taken off the streets. 

Consistently, the response I got is it's always more dangerous to go to your No. 2 guy,” Carroll said. 

Eventually, the drug market normalizes itself, such as when pressure from law enforcement slacks off. 

But that brings risk back up. 

For every dip you have down in potency, you're going to have a rise back up,” Carroll said. “And that rise back up creates a lot of opportunities for accident.”

Accidents caused as users unknowingly buy stronger drugs. That can cause a major problem with fentanyl in the mix, since the lethal dose can be so dependent on body weight and prior tolerance. 


A statewide issue 

On Wednesday, Senate Bill 465 passed the House unanimously. For many on the floor, the issue was personal. 

Co-sponsor Rep. James Burchett got teary-eyed as he presented the bill, saying three people had died from an overdose in his district over the past month. 

“What we've done with this bill has given prosecutors the opportunity to go after somebody,” Burchett said. “What we've done here is a very carefully crafted piece of legislation, folks, that we can all support, that we can all get behind to try and curb this epidemic of fentanyl use in the state of Georgia.”

In public comment, another representative broke down recounting his own cousin's overdose. A third, who works in the funeral industry, said they’d lost so many “sons and daughters” in the community that families have been unable to pay for associated costs.  

The bill now heads to the governor's desk.