When lawmakers spotlight criminal justice reform, they focus on decarceration, reducing sentences, finding alternatives to prison and the like.
In this worldview, reform is meant to benefit those convicted of crimes.
Republican state Sen. Patrick O’Connor is flipping the script, introducing a bill that recognizes the gravity of the opioid crisis by making prison sentences reflect the devastation fentanyl and other substances have on our communities.
SD.489 reads in part: Any person who trafficks in fentanyl or any derivative of fentanyl by knowingly or intentionally manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing with intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense or by bringing into the commonwealth shall, if the net weight of the fentanyl in pure form is: 40 grams or more, be punished by a term of imprisonment in the state prison for life.
There are other sentences outlined in the bill, dependent on the drug and amounts sold, and none of them are a walk in the park.
They aren’t supposed to be.
Those who traffic in fentanyl are pushing a lethal substance.
Two milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which issued a warning last spring of a nationwide spike in fentanyl-related mass-overdose events.
According to government data, poisoning by illicit fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for adults aged 18 to 45 in the U.S. The synthetic opioid is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC.
What’s more insidious is that those who die from fentanyl poisoning often don’t know they’ve ingested it. Dealers mix fentanyl with cocaine and Percocet, among other substances. It makes them more addictive, and cheaper.
As the Herald reported, fentanyl was detected in the toxicology of nearly every opioid-related fatal overdose in the first half of 2022. Fentanyl was present in 94% of deaths where a toxicology report was available.
Law enforcement agencies are pulling out the stops to intercept shipments and bust dealers, but the tide keeps coming in. And people keep dying.
Right now, dealing fentanyl merits a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, at least three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $1 million, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office.
To be actively complicit in the deaths of people, especially young people, calls for punishment that fits the crime, hence the soundness of state Sen. O’Connor’s bill.
How many parents have lost children to fentanyl taken at a party when they thought they were ingesting cocaine? Young people make mistakes, but they shouldn’t have to pay with their lives, particularly for someone else’s profit.
A 20-year sentence sounds formidable, except when you consider that a dealer may not serve all their time, thanks to the parole system.
Life in prison – that’s a different story.
O’Connor has a tough row to hoe getting his bill passed in liberal Massachusetts, and no doubt there will be those enraged over lives spent in a prison cell.
It’s about time we put the lives of opioid victims first.