By REP DOYLE HEFFLEY (R-Carbon)

Several major anti-drug initiatives have advanced in the state House in recent weeks which will help protect our children and our communities from the scourge of drugs and violence.

The House passed a bill to make drug delivery resulting in death a first-degree felony. The intent is to give law enforcement and prosecutors a stronger tool to punish drug dealers whose illegal products kill.

The crime of drug delivery resulting in death is currently classified as third-degree murder. In these cases, a defendant's guilt must be proven by establishing malice on the part of the drug dealer. Dealers deserve to face serious consequences for their illegal activities. This legislation will help save lives by keeping drugs out of the hands of our children and removing more drug dealers from the streets. House Bill 396 is now before the Senate.

The House has also taken action to investigate methadone deaths. House Bill 140 calls for incident review teams in cases where methadone was either a primary or secondary cause of death. As of July 1, review teams will be part of the new Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs established by statute last year.

This measure will help us determine if prescriptions like methadone and suboxone are dangerous if used incorrectly or cause overdoses. These medications are prescribed to aid addicts withdrawing from heroin and other opiate addictions, but are also increasingly prescribed by doctors to treat chronic pain.

Methadone death review teams will allow the Commonwealth to collect information necessary to find out how and why an individual taking methadone has died. Nationwide, incidents of methadone-related deaths are climbing. This legislation will help shed light on mysterious deaths and prevent abuse of this highly regulated prescription.

Incident review teams will find out if weaknesses exist in state laws with respect to methadone use or clinics with authority to dispense the controlled substance. If enacted, the bill requires a review team to adhere to strict confidentiality laws to protect the privacy of the patient.

The House also passed a bill that provides a sentencing enhancement for gang-related crimes, such as possession with intent to deliver and violent crimes.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has joined the House in voting to ban the sale of certain chemicals marketed as bath salts or herbal incense, which are synthetic cocaine or marijuana. These would be categorized as Schedule 1 drugs and their sale and use will be illegal. The bill awaits a vote by the full Senate, but could be signed into law this month.

Finally, I am drafting a bill that will ensure that prescription drug abuse is curtailed. My concern is that stronger and stronger medications are being prescribed more readily to young adults and minors, who are misusing or abusing the drugs. All of us should make sure prescriptions are secure and do not disappear from our medicine cabinets.