- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A legislative proposal to give amnesty to people who hand over illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine to takeback programs is facing strong opposition from New Hampshire police chiefs.

“You have to be very careful about unintended consequences,” said Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski, speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee took public testimony Tuesday on the bill, which has already passed the House.

Existing law allows people to return prescription drugs through takeback programs, most of which are run by police departments. The legislation would open up the law to also allow for the return of drug paraphernalia and any illicit drugs, which could include heroin, cocaine or the powerful drug fentanyl.

Republican Rep. Victoria Sullivan of Manchester, the bill’s prime sponsor, said the aim is to give people who decide they want to get sober an option to turn in their drugs and find a treatment program.

The bill says anyone who returns drugs may have an opportunity to talk with someone who can help them find treatment services, but it does not require any programs to have a staffer with that expertise available.

Bryfonski said the bill could effectively legalize the possession of illicit drugs and help dealers avoid criminal prosecution by returning drugs if they fear they are about to be caught. He said allowing for the return of illegal drugs would require departments to change their takeback programs and make them more secure. Prosecutors already have discretion to determine what penalty someone should face and can help people enter treatment programs through drug courts, he said.

But several senators said the drug crisis should be treated more as a health issue than a criminal one. More than 400 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire last year, a number that has steadily grown in recent years. Heroin and fentanyl are top contributors to overdose deaths.

Democratic Sen. Molly Kelly of Keene said modifying the takeback program could immediately help people return their drugs and find treatment options if they decide they want to get clean. She suggested the committee work together with the police chiefs to find a workable bill.

“I know there are families who say I need help and I need help immediately,” Kelly said. “We can’t just set this bill aside and say it’s too difficult. We have to address it.”

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