Will New Laws Punish Pain Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Recent efforts by state and federal lawmakers aimed at punishing drug traffickers could wind up sending people to prison simply for seeking pain relief, according to critics.

This week the American Kratom Association (AKA) sent an action alert to members warning that a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Dianne Feinstein could be a “backdoor way” of banning kratom -- an herbal supplement that millions of people use as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

The “Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017” – also known as the SITSA Act – would give the Attorney General the power to list as a “Schedule A” substance any unregulated drug that has a chemical structure similar to that of a drug already listed as a controlled substance. A similar measure has been introduced in the House.

The bills are ostensibly aimed at banning chemical cousins or “analogues” of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for thousands of overdose deaths that is increasingly appearing on the black market.

But kratom supporters fear the SITSA Act could also be used to ban kratom, something the Drug Enforcement Administration tried unsuccessfully to do last year, claiming it was an "opioid substance" with “a high potential for abuse.” Kratom is not an opioid, but it has opioid-like properties that reduce pain or act as a stimulant or depressant – much like a controlled substance.

“So now the anti-kratom bureaucrats in Washington want to ban kratom simply by claiming it has the same effects as an opioid – calling it an ‘analogue’ of the opioid,” said Susan Ash, the AKA’s founder and spokesperson. “After everything that we’ve fought successfully against and endured together as a movement, our lobbyists are concerned that this is now the perfect storm for banning kratom.”

Ash wants the SITSA Act to be amended to exclude natural botanicals like kratom. In its current form, she says the bill could impose prison sentences of up to 20 years for importers or exporters of kratom, which is made from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia.

Florida Law Stiffens Penalties for Fentanyl

A new law in Florida is also intended to crackdown on fentanyl dealers, but critics say it could wind up sending unsuspecting pain patients to prison as well.

Signed into law yesterday by Gov. Rick Scott, it requires mandatory minimum sentences for defendants convicted of selling, purchasing or possessing illicit fentanyl.

Anyone caught with as little as four grams of fentanyl would face a minimum of three years in prison. Sentences escalate depending on the amount of fentanyl seized and murder charges could be filed if someone dies of a fentanyl overdose.

Dealers often mix fentanyl with heroin or sell it in counterfeit pills disguised to look like oxycodone or other prescription painkillers. Many users have no idea they’re buying fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

"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.”



Florida has been down this path before. According to an investigative series by Reason.com, mandatory minimum sentences in Florida for oxycodone and hydrocodone trafficking resulted in 2,300 people being sent to prison, most of them low-level drug users or patients who went to the black market seeking pain relief. 

“The signing of this bill by Gov. Scott is another example of using get tough drug policies for political gain,” said Tony Papa, Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is not going to stop the sale of heroin in Florida. It's another prosecutorial tool that will be used for bargaining by district attorneys in drug cases.  Under this new law many individuals will be subject to the death penalty for a 10 dollar bag of dope. It's totally insane!”

Wisconsin to Involuntarily Commit “Drug Dependents”

A bill that recently sailed through the Wisconsin legislature with little opposition would allow for the involuntary commitment of someone who is drug dependent. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman John Nygren, has a daughter who has struggled with heroin addiction and served time in jail.

Current Wisconsin law allows for the involuntary commitment of alcoholics if three adults sign a petition alleging that a person lacks self-control over their use of alcohol and whose health is substantially impaired. 

The new bill adds “drug dependence” to the list of reasons someone can by committed. Dependence is defined as a person’s use of one or more drugs that is beyond their ability to control and that substantially impairs their health or social functioning.

The bill is one of nearly a dozen anti-opioid measures sponsored by Nygren that Gov. Scott Walker asked to be approved in a special legislative session. It now heads to his office for consideration.