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House committee advances bill that would punish women for drug use during pregnancy

Rep. Ember Oakley
Rep. Ember Oakley

A bill further criminalizing some drug use during pregnancy has advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee and will head to the House floor.

Mental health professionals warned the bill would actually hurt pregnant mothers and their children, while Laramie Rep. Karlee Provenza highlighted research showing that other states with policies like these have higher rates of children born with withdrawal symptoms.

"This policy is ineffective; it has detrimental outcomes," Provenza said. "And this is a public health problem, not a criminal problem. We need to address the core issue."

House Bill 85 would classify methamphetamine and "narcotic" use by a pregnant person as child endangerment. It only applies to meth and other drugs legally classified as narcotics, but not marijuana, the most frequently used illicit substance.

The bill would create a felony crime with a possible five-year prison sentence. During the committee meeting Thursday, opponents warned that such a law would push pregnant drug users to avoid treatment, for fear of incarceration.

Lander Rep. Andi LeBeau said the bill will backfire, hurting and separating families while doing little to help someone struggling with substance abuse.

"The stick is not going to help our people," LeBeau said. "We really need programs that work, programs that rehabilitate, that keep families together in the best way that's possible."

LeBeau added the bill would especially hurt the community she represents, as poverty – and therefore substance abuse problems – are higher on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The bill's sponsor, Riverton Rep. Ember Oakley, said the goal of the bill is to incentivize treatment.

"It is not an attempt to incarcerate these mothers, but it is an insistence that they will get it right," Oakley said.

She said pregnant mothers are unlikely to be incarcerated by this bill. Rather, it could serve as that "stick" to make mothers get treatment.

But that line of reasoning failed to sway the wide range of interest groups who showed up to oppose the bill – from the ACLU to the Northern Arapaho Business Council to various mental health professional organizations.

Sheryl Foland from the Wyoming Association of Addiction Professionals said treatment should be prioritized over punishment.

"Criminalizing a pregnant woman and her mental health and substance abuse issues we believe is not the way to help our families, our community members, our neighbors," Foland said.

Jackson Rep. Mike Yin asked Oakley if it was possible her bill would encourage women to get abortions rather than face a possible five years in prison.

Oakley said no.

"If a woman is actively using and abusing methamphetamine when they're pregnant, I don't think they're likely to be the ones proactive enough to be going out of the state of Wyoming – which is what you have to do to get an abortion," she said.

The threat of incarceration, many said, would discourage pregnant drug users from seeking prenatal care. A 2019 study from the Rand Corporation found that in states with similar laws, more babies were born experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

The House committee also heard from Michele Foust – the woman at the center of a case Oakley had used to show the need for her bill.

Foust was charged in 2004 with child endangerment for her drug use during pregnancy, but her lawyer argued successfully that while Wyoming law punishes parents who give their children drugs, it does not punish pregnant women who ingest drugs before giving birth.

Foust strongly opposed the bill. She said with the laws in place now, pregnant drug users are already scared to seek medical treatment.

"I also did not seek prenatal care, mostly out of fear of prosecution," Foust said. "I continued to use while I was pregnant and delivered a baby who was positive for methamphetamine."

Responding to a question from Jackson Rep. Mike Yin, Foust said she and other jailed pregnant women frequently discussed abortion specifically because of the burden placed on them by the state.

The House approved the bill this morning on Committee of the Whole. It'll be debated two more times.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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