Second House bill sent to Senate would increase penalties for trafficking fentanyl

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.

Representative Nick Schroer (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.”

Representative Peter Merideth (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

House endorses adding fentanyl, ‘date rape’ drugs to trafficking laws

The Missouri House has proposed strengthening the state’s trafficking laws to include the potent pain reliever fentanyl and its derivatives, as well as Rohypnol or GHB – both commonly known as “date rape” drugs.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 239 would make possession or trafficking of those drugs a felony.  Penalties range from three years to life in prison, depending on the amount of the drug involved.  Missouri laws against trafficking do not include any of those substances.

Lawmakers heard that the abuse of fentanyl steadily increased between 2013 and 2017, and doctors said many people are being treated in emergency rooms because they took heroin mixed with fentanyl.

Bill sponsor Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) said there is a hole in Missouri’s trafficking law, so prosecutors often must charge for whatever drug fentanyl is laced with.  He said more and more it’s being trafficked by itself, as it’s becoming more popular to abuse.

“I have two beautiful, amazing daughters that I kind of want to ensure … that they are not going to be exposed to these things such as fentanyl and carfentanyl and these other drugs of choice that are so dangerous that being prescribed in a micro-milligram fashion can actually kill you,” said Schroer.

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and is legally used to manage pain, especially after surgery.

“We saw right before the hearing [on HB 239] that there was a record bust in the United States – 260 pounds was busted at the [U.S.] border … but in years past we’ve had many different seizures on Highway 44, Highway 70, where it was 30, 40 pounds, which was enough to kill not only everybody who’s in this Capitol right now, and this Capitol is full, it could kill many Missourians,” said Schroer.

As a criminal defense attorney Schroer represented a number of people who had battled heroin addiction.  That’s how he became aware of the rise of fentanyl.

“The majority of those people said, ‘Once fentanyl came into the picture a lot of my friends either died or a lot of my friends became so hooked that we thought it was a lost cause,’” said Schroer.

Representative Gina Mitten (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis) sponsored the amendment that would make possessing or trafficking Rohypnol or GHB punishable by the same penalties as those for other controlled substances.

“If you’ve got somebody at a party that’s got 37 grams of marijuana, why would they have received a greater sentence than somebody that has less than a gram of Rohypnol or GHB?” asked Mitten.  “My amendment … ensured that there was parity between those substances, because personally I believe that the ‘date rape’ drugs are apt to do a heck of a lot more damage than a large amount of marijuana or even heroin.”

Schroer and Mitten both acknowledged that Rohypnol and GHB are also used extensively in sex trafficking.

“If we’re going to take a hard stance on human trafficking it needs to include these substances,” said Mitten.

Schroer anticipates some in the Senate might try to make additions to HB 239 and then send the bill back to the House.  He is optimistic that Governor Mike Parson (R) would sign the bill if it gets to him.