In this year's legislative season across the nation, hundreds of fentanyl crime bills severely ratcheting up penalties were introduced in at least 46 states, renewing a debate over whether unsparing law enforcement can be effective and equitable in addressing a public health crisis, the New York Times reports. In one case, a prosecutor used a Tennessee law permitting homicide charges for someone who gives fentanyl to a person who dies from it to charge a 17-year-old girl with murder after she and two others overdosed in the parking lot of a rural Tennessee high school. The two other girls died. “We have this law to punish drug dealers who poison and kill people,” said Mark E. Davidson, the district attorney prosecuting the case. Tennessee is not alone. Virginia lawmakers codified fentanyl as “a weapon of terrorism.” An Iowa law makes the sale or manufacture of less than five grams of fentanyl — roughly the weight of five paper clips — punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Arkansas and Texas recently joined some 30 states, including Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wyoming, that have a drug-induced homicide statute on the books, allowing murder prosecutions even of people who share drugs socially that contain lethal fentanyl doses.
Approaches to drug addiction have evolved in recent years, with both states and the federal government allocating more funds for treatment and prevention. To many public health experts, the tough new fentanyl laws seem like a replay of the war-on-drugs sentencing era. There are signs pointing to a recurrence of the legacy of the crack cocaine laws. Last year, the average federal trafficking prison sentence for a fentanyl-related substance was about six and a half years, with 56% of those convicted Black, 25% Hispanic and 17% white. Many drug crime experts say these laws don’t meaningfully disrupt the sources of the drug supplies. “These are international drug-trafficking networks,” said Regina LaBelle, a former top drug policy official in the Obama and Biden administrations. “This is about illicit finance,” she said. “So what do we need to do strategically, from a policy standpoint?” Jennifer Carroll, a medical anthropologist at North Carolina State University, published a recent study that found that in one large Indiana county, 911 calls and overdose fatalities jumped as people who relied on dealers who were swept up in drug busts frantically sought fresh sources. “We are falling back on these really comfy, straightforward law-and-order solutions in spite of the fact that they didn’t work before, they’re not working now, and there’s growing evidence telling us they’re making things worse,” Carroll said.