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New law criminalizes xylazine. Advocates say it may push people from treatment to incarceration

Indiana statehouse in late winter.
Lauren Chapman
/
IPB News
The presence of xylazine didn’t have the same criminal liability that substances like fentanyl had because it wasn’t considered a controlled substance. The new law closed, what some lawmakers called, a "loophole."

A veterinary tranquilizer being used as a cutting agent in other controlled substances has been linked to a higher risk of overdose.

Legislation signed into law in March created criminal penalties for the possession and dealing of xylazine. Some advocates said people who need to be connected to treatment might face incarceration instead.

The presence of xylazine didn’t have the same criminal liability that substances like fentanyl had because it wasn’t considered a controlled substance. The new law closed, what some lawmakers called, a “loophole.”

Zach Stock, legislative counsel for the Indiana Public Defender Council, said HEA 1203 identifies a problem, but criminalization hasn’t worked as a stand alone drug policy since the “War on Drugs” started.

“We need to leverage the criminal justice system for providing the treatment, and the conditions necessary to get better, not just warehousing them in jails and in prisons,” Stock said.

The law, authored by Rep. Jennifer Meltzer (R-Shelbyville), establishes penalties for both the possession and dealing of xylazine. Possession of xylazine can result in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. Xylazine dealing carries the potential of one to six years in prison, with the potential punishment increasing to two to 12 years in prison for those with a prior xylazine related conviction.

Stock said the new law also poses a danger of affecting the role that plea deals play in the system. It allows for “charge stacking," which refers to a prosecutor’s ability to charge for possession for all substances that a person has on them, even if they weren’t fully aware that the substance they have was cut with xylazine.

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“The more we allow charge stacking, the more likely we are to see coerced guilty pleas, people who just accept a charge that they don't need to accept to be done with it for fear of, even worse consequences if they fight it,” Stock said.

The new law opposes a key section of the Indiana Constitution that says the penal code should be founded on the principles of reformation, according to Stock.

“It adds a lot of heat and no light,” Stock said. “It adds punishment and no reformation.”

Some lawmakers raised concerns the legislation contributes to a cycle of chasing substance after substance, rather than directing people toward recovery. Stock said the state can maintain “a level of criminalization,” but treatment and harm reduction are necessary parts of the conversation.

An amendment proposed to include some harm reduction efforts, such as language that would decriminalize xylazine test strips. However, the amendment did not pass. Additional legislation that would have removed ambiguous language around test strips also failed during the 2024 session.

Abigail is our health reporter. Contact them at aruhman@wboi.org.

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Abigail Ruhman covers statewide health issues. Previously, they were a reporter for KBIA, the public radio station in Columbia, Missouri. Ruhman graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.