In January 2018, the Alabama Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill proposing tougher penalties for the distribution and trafficking of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine. The bill prescribed strict mandatory minimum sentences based on the weight of the drug. In a public hearing before the House Health Committee on Feb. 7, 2018, experts offered conflicting views. Opponents were concerned that the proposed crackdown would result in low-level offenders being sent to jail whereas those in favor emphasized that the low thresholds were desperately needed since fentanyl was lethal even in miniscule doses.
Former U.S. Attorney, Kenyen R. Brown criticized the bill and highlighted that fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs. Since individuals could be prosecuted based on the mixture’s total weight, those guilty of low-level offence would be treated as traffickers. Rep. Laura Hall, a committee member, also expressed concerns about an “overcrowded prison situation.”
Executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, Barry Matson countered the argument that a person buying fentanyl-laced heroin or other drugs would be charged with trafficking. According to him, the onus of proving that an individual was aware about the presence of fentanyl would be on the prosecutors.
Alabama’s penalties for fentanyl possession disproportionately low
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward, spoke about the current situation in the state highlighting that an increase in fentanyl use has caused a spike in overdose deaths. According to him, existing penalties for possessing fentanyl are disproportionately low, and the new bill would enhance penalties to the same levels as heroin. During the public hearing, Ward indicated that he was open to amendments in the bill but only after holding additional discussions. “The last thing we want is to make possession of a joint a Class A felony,” he said. President of the Alabama Association of Nurse Anesthetists Michael W. Humber has supported the low thresholds arguing that even small doses of fentanyl can be lethal since the drug can be dosed in micrograms in medical settings.
The new bill prescribes mandatory minimum sentences of three, 10 and 25 years for possessing more than 1 gram, 2 or more grams, or 4 or more grams of fentanyl, respectively. A person found with a half to 1 gram would be charged with Class B felony – possession with intent to distribute attracting a prison term of two to 20 years.
In seeking to prescribe tougher penalties for fentanyl, Alabama legislators are following the precedent set by other states. In 2017, Florida had approved the awarding of minimum sentences for people caught with fentanyl and carfentanil (a fentanyl analog 10,000 times more potent than morphine). However, the thresholds used were higher than the Alabama bill – under the Florida law, an individual would receive a minimum prison sentence of three years for possessing between four and 14 grams of fentanyl.
Even small amounts of fentanyl can be lethal
Preliminary data shows that 64,070 people died in 2016 from drug overdoses, up from 52,898 in 2015. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl was held primarily responsible for this increase. Since fentanyl is fast-acting, an overdose can occur within seconds. The time frame to revive a person is only a few minutes, that too with multiple doses of naloxone. It is not uncommon to find fentanyl overdose victims with syringes in their arms as they pass out before there’s time to remove the syringe.
Drug addiction of any kind is associated with a significant loss of health and happiness. Long-term abuse can cause irreversible damage to the brain affecting cognitive and memory skills. For those addicted to a drug, it is important to seek help at the earliest before matters go out of hand. Sovereign Health’s rapid detox centers in California offer state-of-the-art detox programs to help people recover from substance abuse systematically. You can call the 24/7 detox helpline 855-682-0103 or chat online with a representative for more information on our drug detox facilities in California and other parts of the country.