The second bill the Missouri House has sent to the Senate would increase penalties for trafficking a dangerous drug, the use of which can easily result in overdoses. Opponents worry the change will cast too broad a net, putting more users in prison for long terms.
The House voted to making it a class-B felony to knowingly distribute, make, or attempt to distribute or make, more than 10 milligrams of fentanyl or its derivatives. This would carry a penalty of five to 15 years in prison. Making or distributing 20 or more milligrams would be a class-A felony, carrying a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison.
Law enforcement advocates have told lawmakers that fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is being trafficked frequently in Missouri – particularly illegally made – and is often mixed with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, often resulting very easily in overdose deaths.
The sponsor of House Bill 1450, O’Fallon representative Nick Schroer (R), said fentanyl trafficking has continued to increase exponentially in the past year. He believes increased penalties will help law enforcement get to those who are making and selling fentanyl.
“Right now law enforcement and the prosecutors only have the ability to charge drug traffickers with possession, or possession with an intent [to distribute.] We are seeing a trend across the United States from attorneys general, prosecutors, and law enforcement working with the federal government adding this to their criminal trafficking statutes, giving them a new tool in the toolbox to get to the criminal enterprises,” said Schroer.
Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis City) agrees that fentanyl is dangerous and efforts should be made to get it off the streets, but he does not believe the way to do that is by increasing penalties.
“For the last many decades now we’ve been pursuing a drug war where we try and lock people up for longer times thinking that’s going to help us deal with our drug problem, and it hasn’t. It hasn’t at all,” said Merideth. “What we’re really doing is also pulling people out of their communities, out of their families and putting them in prison for extremely long sentences for drugs.”
Florissant representative Alan Green (D) said the longer sentences HB 1450 proposes fly in the face of recent years’ efforts toward criminal justice reform.
“We already got one prison shutting down, we’re looking at shutting down a second prison, and we’re talking about alternative sentencing and all that wonderful stuff now for the last two years, but you’re saying you want to give more to the prosecutors to give them ammunition to go after more cases, but we’re trying to close prisons, so I’m getting mixed messages here. What are we really trying to do with criminal justice reform here?” Green asked Schroer.
Schroer argues that criminal justice reform does not mean being “weak on crime, it means being smart on crime.” He said fentanyl has not been addressed in Missouri and his proposal would do that.
“I agree with the governor … when he indicated that only the most violent of offenders, only society’s most harmful, need to be in our prisons, and I think anybody who’s going to bring these deadly drugs – that even [an amount the size of] a granule of salt will kill several people – those people need to be addressed,” said Schroer. “If we lock that person up, if they just take a plea deal and are locked away we can’t get to the actual manufacturers, this will continue. We’re not fixing the issue. This is a tool which we have seen across this nation is starting to work.”
HB 1450 would also increase the penalties for trafficking one gram or more of Rohypnol or any amount of GHB, both of which are often used in sex crimes.
The House voted 122-33 to send the bill to the Senate for its consideration.