State lawmakers across the country are proposing harsher penalties for fentanyl-related crimes and crimes involving other lab-made opioids.
The recent policy trend is a response to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history, and marks a reversal of a previous trend of liberal policies aimed at softening crimes for drug possession. The lethal drugs have been linked to approximately 70,000 deaths a year on average since the beginning of the opioid crisis.
Proponents of stricter penalties argue that this crisis requires a different approach, and that stiffer sentences are primarily intended to target drug dealers, not just users.
Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson, president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, asserts that fentanyl has devastating effects on communities, which justify harsher penalties for fentanyl-related crimes. “There is no other drug — no other illicit drug — that has the same type of effects on our communities,” he told the Associated Press.
However, recovery advocates are expressing concerns, stating that treating drugs as a criminal issue can be counterproductive.
According to Adam Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, previous instances where drugs were treated as a law enforcement problem led to the punishment of individuals in ways that negatively impacted their recovery and long-term prospects.
“Every time we treat drugs as a law enforcement problem and push stricter laws, we find that we punish people in ways that destroy their lives and make it harder for them to recover later on,” Wandt said.
According to recent statistics, drug overdoses are linked to more than 100,000 deaths annually in the U.S., with two-thirds of them being fentanyl-related. A powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl is often mixed into supplies of other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and counterfeit oxycodone pills.
Lawmakers are seeking to crack down on the spread of fentanyl with harsh penalties and measures such as legalizing materials to test drug supplies for fentanyl and distributing naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses. A dozen states have already adopted fentanyl possession measures, with several others considering tougher penalties. For instance, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford recently proposed a bill that would make crimes such as selling, possessing, manufacturing or transporting four grams or more of fentanyl into the state punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The measure would also remove fentanyl from Nevada’s “Good Samaritan” law, which exempts people who report an overdose from criminal drug possession charges.
However, harm reduction advocates are pushing Ford and others to rethink their support for the bill, arguing that the thresholds for longer penalties can broadly punish low-level users, not just the dealers the law is aimed at, as well as some who may not even know they are taking fentanyl.
Rosa Johnson, who runs a needle exchange, believes that the proposed law would disproportionately affect low-level users. While it is rare for people to cite fentanyl as their drug of choice, fentanyl test strips often come back positive, as the drug is frequently “laced in a lot of things.”
Critics of the proposed legislation warn that Nevada’s crime labs test only for the presence of fentanyl, not the exact amount in a mixture of drugs, so people with over four grams of drugs containing a few milligrams of fentanyl could be subject to trafficking penalties. While much of the debate surrounds the Ford-backed lawmakers have introduced two other bills to create penalties for fentanyl with lower thresholds. Governor Joe Lombardo, a former Clark County sheriff, has vowed to even further by creating legislation that would place possessing any quantity of fentanyl on the same felony threshold as fentanyl trafficking.
South Carolina’s Republican-led chambers have passed fentanyl trafficking measures with bipartisan support, and senators have also unanimously approved a bill allowing alleged drug dealers to be charged with homicide in overdose deaths.
Holly Alsobrooks, who co-founded an advocacy group that supports more fentanyl test strips, opioid antidotes and rehabilitation centers after losing her 25-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose, testified in support of the proposed fentanyl trafficking measures. “If people go to jail, they’re going to go to jail,” she said.