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State Legislators Seek Harsher Penalties For Fentanyl Possession

State lawmakers are responding to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history by pushing harsher penalties for possessing fentanyl and other powerful lab-made opioids that are connected to about 70,000 deaths a year. Imposing longer prison sentences for possessing smaller amounts of drugs represents a shift in states that in recent years have rolled back drug possession penalties. Proponents of tougher penalties say this crisis is different and that, in most places, the stiffer sentences are intended to punish drug dealers, not just users, the Associated Press reports. “There is no other drug — no other illicit drug — that has the same type of effects on our communities,” said Mark Jackson, the district attorney for Douglas County, Nv., nd president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, which is pushing for stricter penalties for fentanyl-related crimes.


The strategy alarms recovery advocates, who say focusing on the criminal aspect of drugs has historically backfired, including when lawmakers elevated crack cocaine penalties in the 1980s. “Every time we treat drugs as a law enforcement problem and push stricter laws, we find that we punish people in ways that destroy their lives and make it harder for them to recover later on,” said Adam Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He said people behind bars often continue getting drugs — often without receiving quality addiction treatment — then emerge to find it’s harder to get work. Since 2020, drug overdoses are linked to more than 100,000 deaths a year nationally, with about two-thirds of them fentanyl-related. That’s more than 10 times as many drug deaths as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic. Fentanyl mostly arrives in the U.S. from Mexico and is mixed into supplies of other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and counterfeit oxycodone pills. Some users seek it out. Others don’t know they’re taking it. Ingesting 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, meaning 1 gram — about the same as a paper clip — could contain 500 lethal doses. Before this year’s legislative sessions began, a dozen states had already adopted fentanyl possession measures, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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