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Florida Congressman Introduces Bill Against Fentanyl

The lethal dose of fentanyl is generally stated to be two milligrams, much less than that of heroin, morphine, oxycodone or any other opiate drug. (photo by: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota introduced legislation that would permanently classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs.

Tampa Bay area law enforcement and substance-abuse advocacy groups are backing a bipartisan bill before Congress that would classify fentanyl as a Schedule I drug.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Sarasota, and New Hampshire Democrat Chris Pappas are sponsoring the Federal Initiative to Guarantee Health by Targeting (FIGHT) Fentanyl Act.

The bill will permanently allow law enforcement to prosecute people who manufacture, distribute or handle fentanyl-related substances.

Right now, synthetic opioids have this label temporarily.

This week, the bill received endorsements from Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells and Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid similar to heroin, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s the deadliest drug in Florida, and its overdose death numbers have been rising.

In 2019, fentanyl was present in over 3,200 of Florida’s 5,000 overdose deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of overdose deaths in 2020 climbed to 7,500. Though officials have not yet released how many of those deaths involved fentanyl, they say use of the drug continued to increase during the coronavirus pandemic with deadly results.

“It’s scary that an amount the size of a few grains of sand is enough to kill 20 people,” said Jennifer Webb, director of Project Opioid Tampa Bay.

Hoffman said the bill will make it easier to prosecute dealers selling the drug.

“I think making this a Schedule I permanent can help put some teeth into the enforcement and get folks who are distributing and dealing this deadly drug some serious prison time,” the Sarasota County sheriff said. “Hopefully, that’s what helps reduce the market out there, when you can take the dealers off the street.”

In 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a temporary order that lists all fentanyl-like substances as Schedule I, a category that includes some of the most dangerous drugs. That grouped them with drugs like heroin, which have a high potential for abuse and “no currently accepted medical use.”

The classification was set to expire May 6. Recently, President Joe Biden signed legislation extending it to October 2022.

In addition to the support from local law enforcement, Buchanan’s bill has been backed by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

While proponents say the classification helps law enforcement prosecute drug traffickers, some criminal justice reform activists oppose it. That’s because people convicted on charges involving Schedule I drugs face mandatory minimum prison sentences. Activists say it could lead to more incarcerations and exacerbate racial disparities in prisons.

Groups including AIDS United, the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council sent a letter to lawmakers in early April urging them not to extend the classification.

Webb, who backs the bill, said she wants to see a greater focus on prevention.

“We need to learn from our past, we need to have smart, nuanced legislation on the justice side of things while also really bolstering our treatment and prevention programs,” she said.

Hoffman said incarcerating drug dealers is only one part of mitigating fentanyl in the community.

“We understand you’re not going to arrest your way out of addiction,” Hoffman said. “But with this particular drug enforcement, significant jail time for dealers is an important part of the equation in stopping this epidemic.”

The bill is a companion to bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

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