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States Stick to Fentanyl-Penalty Binge, Despite Downsides

Hundreds of fentanyl crime bills were introduced in at least 46 state legislatures in this year's legislative sessions alone, despite a chorus of warnings that such policies could worsen the opioid crisis and push users toward more dangerous synthetic alternatives, Stateline reports. Twenty-eight states have now enacted at least one fentanyl criminal provision as of this month. Most of the legislation introduced recently would increase penalties for the illegal production, possession and distribution of fentanyl. One Louisiana bill designated fentanyl as “a weapon of terrorism,” which makes knowingly manufacturing or distributing substances containing any detectable amount of it punishable by up to 10 years of prison time. Many states have drug-induced-homicide laws that allow murder prosecutions if drugs contain lethal doses.


Critics are concerned over whether these types of measures address the root causes of substance use. Some criminal justice advocates say fentanyl should be treated as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem. “Public health interventions, things like harm reduction services would actually go a long way in curbing overdose deaths and connecting people to treatment. Unfortunately, that’s not the route that many lawmakers both at the state and federal level are choosing to follow,” said Maritza Perez Medina, the director of federal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. She also said criminalization measures have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, which amplifies existing racial and socioeconomic disparities. More than 110,500 people in the United States died of drug overdoses in 2022, and 75,778 of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

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