(WHTM) — What could be a step to fight the opioid epidemic passed the Pennsylvania State Senate in early October. It would impose mandatory minimum sentences on people who sell drugs to someone who dies of an overdose.
It is called “Tyler’s Law” in honor of Tyler Shanafelter, who died of an overdose in 2020. His mother, Laura, still has pictures of her son filling her house.
“Every time someone came to our door, he’d run upstairs and put on a costume,” she remembered, looking at pictures of when Tyler was young. “He’d either come down as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman.”
The pictures are reminders of his personality.
“He was funny, he was the little glue that held my little family together,” Laura said.
However, those pictures are not the whole story. In 2018, Laura started finding drugs in her son’s things. First it was marijuana, then ecstasy. Tyler told his mom it was a one-time thing.
“I believed him because my kids…could never be, have substance use disorder,” Laura said.
But things got worse.
“He was staying up all night, sleeping all day. He had started to lose enough weight that it was noticeable to me,” Laura said.
Tyler eventually moved out and tried to get clean. But in October 2020, he ordered pills.
“He thought it was Percocet,” Laura said.
The pills were laced with fentanyl, and the next morning, Laura got a phone call. Her son had died of an overdose.
“I just fell to my knees and cried,” she said.
However, Laura’s grief soon turned to anger. She met more parents like her and realized people selling these deadly drugs rarely faced consequences.
“All these families deserve justice for their child,” Laura said.
She took her story to State Senator Doug Mastriano, who shared her frustration.
“So many beautiful young people, their lives are being swept away because of one stupid decision,” Mastriano, a Republican who represents Franklin and Adams counties, said.
At the beginning of 2023, Mastriano introduced Tyler’s Law. The bill would impose a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $15,000 for people who sell drugs that kill someone.
“You might not get off with a slap on the wrist as some have,” Mastriano said.
Not every parent is on board.
“I don’t find anything in the bill that does good. And I certainly see that it will do harm,” said Matt McGahran, who lost his son Jamie to a fentanyl overdose in 2020.
“Always a big smile, always wanting to do the next adventure,” he described his son.
McGahran said Jamie lived in Colorado and worked as a ski instructor and rafting guide, among other things. McGahran said his son loved the outdoors.
However, Jamie also struggled with anxiety and depression, and the isolation of COVID took a toll on him. McGahran said he knew his son had struggled with addiction in the past, but thought the issue was resolved.
“Jamie suffered in silence,” he said.
McGahran worries Tyler’s Law would make the problem worse, putting people struggling with addiction in jail and increasing the stigma.
“And the more stigma is out there, the more loved ones like Jamie who died in silence,” he said.
Laura shares those concerns, saying “that’s not how we’re going to help people with addiction by putting them in prison.”
However, she said that is not what the bill is intended to do.
“This literally is strictly for the people making a profit on pushing poison to your children,” she said.
McGahran argues cracking down on the supply of drugs is not the right approach because demand will still exist.
“If you arrest somebody, there will be someone right behind them,” he said.
He is also concerned the threat of prison time will make people less likely to help someone going through an overdose.
“People are much more likely to flee a scene, and not save that person’s life,” he said.
The bill has exemptions for people who share drugs with friends and family, but McGahran said that still puts the burden of proof on users, who may not have the resources or financial means to fight a case if they get in trouble.
Laura disagrees. She said she hopes this will encourage people to call for help because they will not get in trouble and that justice matters. It may be too late for Tyler, but not for everyone.
“It’s really to help the future families, because if it can happen to my family, it can happen to your family because I’m living proof that I swore this would never affect my family,” she said. “I feel like my son’s actually going to do more good in his absence than in living. So I have to be his voice now.
The bill is now in committee in the House. Laura said she hopes it passes, but even if it does not, the fact that her son’s story got people’s attention means his death will not be in vain.