By Pat Anson, Editor
The Florida legislature is close to passing a bill that would require mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of selling, purchasing or possessing illicit fentanyl.
Critics say the legislation could result in pain patients being sent to jail when they unwittingly buy counterfeit painkillers on the black market that are made with fentanyl.
House Bill 477 was approved unanimously by the Florida House this week. Similar legislation is under consideration in the Senate. Both bills would put fentanyl, carfentanil, and their chemical cousins in the same drug class as heroin.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 more potent than morphine. It is available legally by prescription to treat severe pain, but illicitly manufactured fentanyl has become a scourge across the U.S. and Canada, where it is usually mixed with heroin or used to make counterfeit drugs.
As currently written, the House bill requires anyone convicted of having as little as 4 grams of fentanyl to get a mandatory three year prison term; 14 grams would carry a 15-year sentence; and 28 grams would result in 25 years behind bars.
Judges would have zero discretion to alter the sentences. If the drugs result in someone dying, suspects would face a charge of first degree murder.
While the legislation is primarily aimed at cracking down on dealers, critics say patients desperate for pain relief could also face prison if they buy counterfeit oxycodone and other painkillers laced with fentanyl.
"There's a massive problem with counterfeit pills," Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums told the Miami New Times.
"You have people who think they’re buying oxy pills who will end up getting labeled as traffickers in fentanyl. A handful of pills could get you three years. If you buy just 44 pills, you could end up with 25 years in prison."
Newburn was surprised the Florida legislature didn’t learn its lesson from previous efforts to require lengthy prison terms for oxycodone and hydrocodone traffickers. Rigid enforcement of the law led to 2,300 people being sent to prison, including some patients who were simply look for pain relief, according to Reason.com.
"When you look back on how the last mandatory-minimum heroin law was applied, you see that it targeted not just just traffickers but a lot of low-level offenders, people who were never supposed to be targeted by the bill in the first place," said Newburn. "We had a heroin mandatory-minimum law for 18 years. Lawmakers promised us it would deter drug use, but now we’re in the midst of the worst heroin crisis we’ve ever seen. And the answer to that is to pass another mandatory minimum?"
Florida was one the first states where counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl began to appear. In early 2016, nine people died in Florida’s Pinellas County after ingesting counterfeit Xanax, an anxiety medication.
“Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescriptions pills, some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl, have been introduced into U.S. drug markets, exacerbating the fentanyl and opioid crisis,” the DEA warned in a report last year. “Motivated by enormous profit potential, traffickers are exploiting high consumer demand for prescription medications by producing inexpensive, fraudulent prescription pills containing fentanyl.”
As opioid prescriptions have become harder to obtain, some pain patients are turning to the black market for relief. In a recent survey of over 3,100 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, 11 percent said they had obtained opioids illegally on the black market in the year after the CDC’s opioid guidelines were released.