Posted on January 25, 2018
A huge step backward on opioids
In the last 2 years, 25 states have passed bills to increase fentanyl-related penalties. Oddly enough, some of the harshest measures have been passed in states that had been making considerable progress in scaling back the drug war & mass incarceration. https://t.co/Y7FyRPc3bb
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) January 25, 2018
Just as a bipartisan consensus was emerging that a punitive approach to drugs was not the way forward, lawmakers are responding to fentanyl — an opioid estimated to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and often added to heroin to increase its potency — by prioritizing prison over public health and embracing discredited drug war policies proven to make the crisis worse. In the last two years, 25 states have passed legislation to increase fentanyl-related penalties. At the federal level, there have been several proposals to increase mandatory minimum sentences and even give the death penalty for selling fentanyl. Oddly enough, some of the harshest measures have been passed in states that had been making considerable progress in scaling back the drug war and mass incarceration. In Maryland, in 2016, the governor signed a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms that reduced sentences for drug offenses. Some advocates suggested that the bill’s passage “put Maryland at the forefront of states that are adopting major criminal justice reform.” Yet just one year later the same state passed a bill with a 10-year sentencing enhancement for anyone caught selling fentanyl and its analogues. People who sell drugs are often drug users. Politicians may intend to target “kingpins” with these proposals, but these laws typically end up targeting people who sell small amounts of drugs simply to fund their addiction. As Maryland public defender Kelly Casper points out, “These aren’t two distinct sets of people. … They want to charge all of these people with drug dealing, when in fact the core of the problem is that they’re users.” Other punitive drug war measures as a response to fentanyl have proliferated. A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance — an organization working to end the war on drugs — noted a rise in drug-induced homicide prosecutions, where individuals are charged with murder or manslaughter when drugs they sell (or even share or give away) lead to an overdose death. Currently, 20 states have such a law. And elsewhere, the rise in fentanyl-related deaths has led lawmakers to pass involuntary commitment laws, where people who use drugs are held against their will in treatment facilities, often in prison-like conditions — and for up to 90 days in some states. Making matters worse, drug sentences disproportionately affect people of color, even though whites reportedly are more likely to sell drugs, and there is no reason to believe harsh fentanyl penalties will be applied equally. Fentanyl is a serious challenge, and as the death count climbs, the pressure is on to “do something.” But that “something” should be a strategy grounded in public health, not approaches that do nothing to decrease deaths and everything to increase the prison population.