Across the United States, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014.
One of these synthetic opioids is the prescription drug Fentanyl, which is used to manage severe pain. It is reportedly 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. In response to a “national surge in overdose deaths caused by the substance,” local Congressman Dan Donovan unveiled the Comprehensive Fentanyl Control Act yesterday.
If passed, the legislation would add up to five years to the sentence of a trafficker who cuts any controlled substance with fentanyl. It would also reduce from 400 grams (200,000 possibly lethal doses) to 20 grams (10,000 lethal doses) the minimum fentanyl possession threshold to trigger mandatory sentences.
“It’s important to distinguish between those struggling with addiction and the traffickers who enable them,” Donovan said in a statement. “The former group requires intensive treatment and years of hard work to stay clean. The latter group must answer for the deaths they’ve caused.”
Donovan, a Republican, represents Staten Island and part of Southern Brooklyn, including sections of Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Dycker Heights and Bay Ridge.
Traffickers lace drugs like heroin with fentanyl to boost potency, Donovan said. It is a lethal combination — incredibly, a dosage of fentanyl as small as two milligrams can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control has reported a 79-percent spike in synthetic opioid deaths largely attributable to illicit fentanyl, the Congressman noted.
Congressman Tom Rooney (R) of Florida is a co-sponsor of the legislation. Donovan and Rooney say that their bill addresses two issues: the criminal code’s “outdated” fentanyl provisions and the “pill presses” used to make counterfeit painkillers.
The proposed legislation would also make it illegal for unauthorized persons to obtain “pill presses” through the mail. These presses are used to create counterfeit prescription painkillers containing fentanyl, which can easily be deadly, Donovan argued. Existing federal law prohibits unauthorized users from having the presses, but that hasn’t deterred their proliferation, he added.
Balancing Treatment versus Criminalization
“The national conversation on substance abuse has focused intensely on addiction as a mental health crisis for which treatment is preferable to prison, and that’s a good thing,” said Congressman Donovan.
“But we can’t lose sight of the criminal justice system’s role in addressing the drug epidemic,” he continued. “Traffickers are intentionally lacing their products with synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Society can’t cure this dark branch of the drug problem with medically-assisted treatment and therapy; only law enforcement agents and judges can meet the threat.”
Drug abuse legislation that was supported by the Congressman earlier this year was criticized as “severely limited by the minimal level of funding” for new treatment options.
Donovan and Rooney say they helped to pass the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), legislation that authorizes grants for local addiction treatment, education, and enforcement programs. Funding for the programs was included in a budget resolution that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama in September.
After signing CARA, President Obama noted in a statement that “this legislation includes some modest steps to address the opioid epidemic. Given the scope of this crisis, some action is better than none.”
“However, I am deeply disappointed that Republicans failed to provide any real resources for those seeking addiction treatment to get the care that they need,” the President added. “In fact, they blocked efforts by Democrats to include $920 million in treatment funding.”