The crisis of addiction and overdose that has gripped the United States for two decades has become more severe, with state governments looking for ways to prevent the devastation caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
In statehouses across the country, lawmakers are considering and adopting legislation on two fronts: reducing users’ risks and increasing fines for dealing with fentanyl or mixing it with other drugs. Meanwhile, the Republican state attorney general is calling for more federal action, while some GOP governors are deploying National Guard units with a mission to stop the flow of fentanyl from Mexico.
In Ohio, Republican Senator Nathan Manning said, “It’s a fine line to help people and try to clean up people and at the same time try to get prisoners and drug traffickers out on the streets.” Materials used to test drugs for fentanyl are legal.
Urgency has increased due to the profound effects of the drug. Last year, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the country had crossed a deadly milestone. For the first time, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose over a 12-month period. About two-thirds of deaths were associated with fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, which may be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, heroin or prescription opioids.
The recent incident of five West Point cadets taking overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine during a spring break in Florida has brought the dangers and magnitude of the fentanyl crisis back into the spotlight.
The chemical pioneers of the drug are mainly being shipped from China to Mexico, where most of the illicit fentanyl is produced in supply labs before being trafficked to the United States.
While users sometimes look for fentanyl in particular, it and other synthetics with similar properties are often mixed with other drugs or made into fake pills so that users often do not know they are taking it.
Advocates say the test strips could help prevent accidental overdoses of drugs made with fentanyl. Strips are given in exchange for needles and sometimes at concerts or other events where drugs are expected to be sold or used.
Thomas Stuber, chief legal officer at The LCADA Way, a drug treatment company in Ohio that serves Lorraine County and surrounding areas, is pushing for test strip law. It will also facilitate access to naloxone, a drug that can be used to rejuvenate people when they overdose on opioids.
“It’s a loss-reduction approach that has gained a lot of acceptance,” he said. “If someone dies, we can’t treat him.”
According to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least a dozen states have enacted similar laws since last year, and at least a dozen others have considered them.
In West Virginia, the state most affected by per capita opioids, lawmakers passed a bill this month to legalize test strips. It is now going to the governor.
The measure was sponsored by Republican lawmakers. But state representative Mike Pushkin, a Democrat whose district center includes Charleston, is also pushing for more access to fentanyl strips. He said the situation worsened last year when a state law tightened the rules on needle exchanges, which led to some of them being shut down.
Pushkin, who is also recovering from a long-term addiction recovery, is pleased to pass the testing strip bill but is upset to see another measure passed this month that would increase penalties for fentanyl trafficking. That bill would also create a new offense of adding fentanyl to other drugs.
“Their initial reaction is, ‘We have to do something,'” he said. “It’s not just about doing something, it’s about doing the right thing that actually has consequences.”
But for many lawmakers, ensuring that stricter criminal penalties apply to fentanyl is a priority.
California Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen, a Republican, has introduced a system that would make dealing with fentanyl as harsh as selling cocaine or heroin. Republicans represent Orange County, where more than 600 fentanyl-related deaths were reported last year.
“This is sending a message to those who are not afraid to sell these drugs that there are longer, bigger penalties than you might think,” said Nguyen, whose bill failed to get a 5-2 vote from his chamber’s public safety committee weeks after the bill failed. He said he was considering trying again.
He said committee members emphasized empathy for drug users, which he said he agreed with.
“The less these pills are available, the better,” Nguyen said. “And it’s going after the drug dealer.”
On the same day that his measure failed to move forward, a Democratic lawmaker in California announced a separate bill to increase the punishment for fentanyl-dealing.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has found 12 states with fentanyl-specific drug trafficking or possession laws as of last year. Similar measures have been introduced or considered in at least 19 states since the beginning of 2021, according to an analysis of bills compiled by the Associated Press Legiscan. It does not include the provision of more artificial opioids in the list of controlled substances in the mirror of federal law; They have been adopted in many states with bipartisan support.
Fentanyl has been in the spotlight in Colorado since February, when five people were found dead in an overdose of fentanyl mixed with cocaine in a suburban Denver apartment.
Under state law, possession with the intent to distribute less than 14 grams of fentanyl is an offense punishable by up to two to four years in prison. But fentanyl is so potent that 14 grams can present a lethal dose of up to 700, according to a calculation used by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat, said in an interview that “this makes it impossible for dealers to be held accountable for the timing of the drugs they sell.”
He and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a bill last week backed by Democratic Governor Jared Polis that would increase fines for dealers of small amounts of fentanyl and where the drug causes death. This legislation will increase the accessibility of naloxone and test strips when administering fentanyl to individuals conducting educational and medical activities.
Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for a reduction, said the law would increase criminal penalties.
“Our imprisonment rate is the highest in the world and we are also setting a record for excessive deaths,” he said.
Democratic governors are primarily focused on ways to reduce losses. Among them is Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker, who last month unveiled a comprehensive overdose action plan.
Several Republican governors and attorney generals have responded to the growing number of deaths by pushing for administrative enforcement and pressure for more federal intervention.
Last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducie called on states to help secure Mexico’s border. In addition to trying to prevent people from entering the United States, fentanyl was cited as a reason to stop the flow. Several more Republican governors have sent teams of state troops or National Guard units.
The Texas military says its troops seized 1,200 pounds (540 kilograms) of fentanyl near the border between March 2021 and earlier this month. By comparison, federal authorities confiscated about 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms) in 2021 – a fraction of what has yet to enter the country.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security filed about 2,700 cases involving the distribution of fentanyl and similar synthetic drugs, nearly ten times more than in 2017. Nevertheless, Republican state officials are critical of federal efforts to stop fentanyl from entering the country.
In January, the Attorney General of the 16 GOP states sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urging him to put more pressure on China and Mexico to stop the flow of fentanyl. Dr Rahul Gupta, director of the National Drug Control Policy, said steps were already being taken.
In March, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morris called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to take further action on fentanyl trafficking and harsher punishments.
“Fentanyl is killing an unprecedented number of Americans at all levels of life,” Morrissey said in a statement emailed to the AP, “and the federal government must respond with full force across the board using every tool available to stem the tide of death.”
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