Lawmakers Use War on Drugs ‘Playbook’ for Fentanyl, Report Warns

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Although a public health approach to the deepening fentanyl crisis could yield best results, legislators are “dusting off” a “war on drugs playbook” with harsher, draconian laws that threaten to backfire, according to the newly released report “Criminal Justice Reform in the Fentanyl Era: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.”

Since 2011, 45 states have proposed legislation to increase penalties for fentanyl while 39 states and Washington DC have passed or enacted such legislation.

“At this moment, some members of Congress are working to codify harsher penalties by placing fentanyl analogs permanently into Schedule 1 in both the Senate and the House,” said the report prepared by the Drug Policy Alliance.

“In his annual State of the State 2020 address this month, New York Governor [Andrew] Cuomo proposed banning fentanyl analogs and expanding access to medication
assisted treatment in the very same sentence,” said the report.

The punitive measures for fentanyl across the country include new mandatory minimum sentences, homicide charges, involuntary commitment, and expanded
powers for prosecutors.

The rise in fentanyl-involved deaths “has tested the rhetorical embrace of a public health approach to drugs,” according to the report. The criminal justice reform movement of treatment over incarceration could be reversing.

Part of the reason: “The U.S. is in the throes of a deadly overdose crisis that claimed almost 70,000 lives in 2018,” the report said. “Of those, around 30,000 deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”

The U.S. is “in the midst of what experts have called the ‘third wave’ of the overdose crisis,” said the report. The first wave began in the early 2000s with a rise in prescription opioid-involved overdose deaths, followed by heroin-involved overdose deaths. Since 2015, heroin is being adulterated with fentanyl, “a synthetic opioid that can be 50-100 times more potent than morphine.”

Alarmingly, “While our illegal drug supply has seen new drugs come and go, experts suggest that fentanyl may be here to stay.”

Will history repeat itself?

Much of the modern criminal justice reform movement “emerged as a response to the costly, draconian drug sentencing laws that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s. The reintroduction of mandatory minimum sentences and the passage of ‘three strikes’ laws were devastating to communities and we still see the effects of this
devastation today.”

The report said that many legislators who support scaling back mass incarceration and the drug war nonetheless are now supporting extremely harsh measures for fentanyl.

“The most effective ways to address the fentanyl crisis are evidence-based public health and harm reduction approaches,” the report said.

Read the report here.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report

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