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States May Beef Up Anti-Fentanyl Laws -- A Return To War On Drugs?

Randy Abbott seethed with anger after his daughter, Vanessa, 24, died of an overdose at a North Carolina house party eight years ago. His idea of justice was “for everybody to go to jail forever.” Today, Abbott doesn’t believe users who share lethal drugs should be prosecuted for the resulting deaths. In Vanessa’s case, that person was a childhood friend, herself in the throes of addiction. “She lives every day with the fact she lost her best friend,” Abbott said. His view is part of an emotional debate unfolding in state legislatures as lawmakers move to crack down on drug crimes in response to growing anger and fear over the toll of a drug crisis killing thousands every month, the Washington Post reports. In North Carolina, one of at least a dozen states this year that have considered tougher drug penalties, the Senate passed a measure that would expand prosecutors’ ability to bring felony charges against anyone who gives a lethal dose of fentanyl.

Prosecutors support such measures, saying they are deterrents and hold to account people who sell illegal drugs, particularly fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that can be 50 times as strong as heroin and kills someone in the U.S. every seven minutes. Critics such as Abbott argue that the harsh penalties don’t deter drug use, and unfairly punish people struggling with addiction who are often low-level dealers — harkening back to the failed drug sentencing laws of the crack-cocaine era of the 1980s and 1990s. Still, the proposals are politically popular, including with some Democratic legislators who had rolled back punitive state drug laws but are under pressure amid rising crime and the unprecedented overdose epidemic. Many families who have lost loved ones to overdoses support measures to increase penalties for crimes related to fentanyl. Fentanyl accounted for some 70,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone — a toll greater than U.S. fatalities in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Its role led Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to describe it as the “single greatest challenge we face as a country.” “We’re seeing Americans killing other Americans, distributing illicit drugs that contain a deadly substance,” said Barbara Walsh of Cary, N.C., who lost her daughter Sophia, 24, in 2021, after she drank a bottle of water she didn’t know was spiked with fentanyl. No one was prosecuted in Sofia’s case. “If someone was doing that with cyanide, they would be incarcerated for poisoning,” said Walsh, who created the Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina.


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