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Fentanyl trafficking bill among first bills to be taken up in resumed session

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Among the very first bills to be taken up when Alabama legislators resume work this week is House Bill 1, legislation that aims to address the ongoing fentanyl crisis.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, along with 14 co-sponsors, HB1 would establish mandatory minimum sentences for both fentanyl trafficking and possession. The bill is expected to get its first vote Wednesday during a State House Judiciary Committee meeting.

“I was a former prosecutor, former district attorney, and I had a former DA that I worked with reach out to me and (say) that they were prosecuting someone in Baldwin County for trafficking fentanyl, and there was no mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl,” Simpson told Alabama Daily News.

“That didn’t sound right to me because every drug in Alabama other than fentanyl has a mandatory sentence.”

Current Alabama law related to fentanyl possession and distribution imposes mandatory sentences and fines starting at four or more grams, whereas those charged with possession of any amount below that threshold are subject only to mandatory fines.

Under the proposed bill, those charged with possessing between 1-2 grams of fentanyl would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of three years imprisonment, and a fine of at least $50,000. Between 2-4 grams would net a minimum ten-year sentence and a fine of at least $100,000, and between 4-8 grams would see a minimum 25-year sentence and a minimum fine of $500,000.

Possession of eight grams or more of fentanyl would net a minimum life sentence, and a fine of at least $750,000.

For comparison, possession of anywhere from 4-14 grams of heroin are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of three years, with a mandatory life sentence for heroin possession being imposed at 56 grams or more.

“Fentanyl has blown up in our population, in our area; not just Baldwin and Mobile counties but all across the state,” Simpson said. 

“It’s a national problem when we have the open border that we have, that’s where the drugs come in. My understanding is that once it’s across the border, it’s in Alabama in less than 24 hours.”

According to a 2023 drug threat assessment by the National Drug Control Policy, fentanyl was named as the single-greatest drug threat in Alabama for the third consecutive year, a designation derived from 105 law enforcement survey respondents.

Fentanyl deaths and abuse have increased over the years as well. In 2021, Alabama saw 1,069 fentanyl deaths, a nearly 136% increase over the previous year, as well as 417 admissions into treatment centers for fentanyl abuse, a 64% increase over the previous year. Birmingham’s Jefferson County alone saw 316 fentanyl deaths in 2021, a more than 68% increase over the previous year.

Dr. Scott Harris, state health officer for the Alabama Public Health Department, spoke last week to the gravity of the ongoing fentanyl crisis in Alabama, as well as to the increased frequency of drug users unintentionally ingesting the deadly substance.

“Just a few grains of fentanyl can be fatal in certain situations, it’s maybe 50 times more potent than heroin, maybe 100 times more potent than morphine, and more and more is starting to show up in places you just wouldn’t expect it,” Harris said.

“People buy a pill off the internet that they think is a stimulant that keeps them awake, or they think it’s some other thing, but these things turn out to be laced with fentanyl in a lot of cases, and it’s really resulted in some terrible outcomes. Since 2018, we’ve had about a 3,000% increase in emergency room visits related to fentanyl, and 200-300% increase in deaths, so those numbers are increasing, and it’s not just in Alabama, it’s all over the country.”

It was both the increase in fentanyl deaths and use, Simpson said, that led him to pursue imposing such harsh penalties for its possession and distribution.

“I wanted to focus on going after the traffickers, the people that were actually bringing it into the community, distributing it and putting it in the hands of others; I didn’t want to go after just the users, this is kind of going after the bigger fish, and the users,” Simpson said.

“We wanted to have a significant punishment on there to let them know, if you’re trafficking fentanyl in the state of Alabama, we’re going to come after you and there’s going to be significant punishment. Fentanyl is so deadly, you could take a sweet and low packet – which is one gram – and if that were pure fentanyl, that’s deadly enough to kill 500 people.”

The bill is the first on the agenda of the House Judiciary Committee‘s Wednesday meeting.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, told Alabama Daily News that he shared Simpson’s concerns over the increasing abuse of fentanyl in the state given its overdose rate.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 50 years now, (and) unlike any drug that we have faced before, the death rate is so high, and the amount that it takes to kill someone is such a small amount,” Hill said.

“We certainly have dangerous drugs in our society, but I don’t think we have a single one that even comes close to being as dangerous and as deadly as Fentanyl.”

Following the conclusion of the special session last week, House Speaker Nathanial Ledbetter told members of the media that HB1 was one of the highest priorities upon lawmakers’ return to the regular session today.

“We’ll see the fentanyl bill come, we’re going to try to have it on the floor right out of the gate… I think it’s imperative we do that,” Ledbetter said. “It’s such a sad state when we see young people across our state die from it. It’s something we’ve got to get a grip on, so certainly fentanyl will be one of the first things we look at.”

While the bill has amassed considerable support among Alabama leaders, some State House Democrats said they would like to pair accountability with treatment options for those suffering from addiction. One such House Democrat was Rep. Phillip Ensler, who told Alabama Daily News that while he wanted to continue talks among his legislative colleagues before taking an affirmative position on the bill, generally he wanted to see accountability be paired with support programs.

“I understand that there needs to be accountability for trafficking and selling (fentanyl), but until we get at the root causes of drug use, the need is going to be out there,” Ensler said. “It’s one thing if someone is selling (fentanyl) to charge and convict them for that, but I would want us to try to pair that with making sure that we’re getting services to people try to steer them away from drug use in the first place, or deal with addiction.”

The strategy of imposing harsher penalties on drug traffickers and users has critics beyond the Alabama State Legislature, among them being Amy Fettig, executive director for the advocacy center The Sentencing Project.

“We know from 50 years of the war on drugs that mandatory minimums for drug possession do absolutely nothing to curb drug use or addiction; you have to deal with drug use and possession as a public health issue,” Fettig told Alabama Daily News.

“When you arrest people for possession of drugs – and they’re most often people who are actually drug users – there’s what’s called an ‘immediate replacement effect’ in the drug economy. So you can arrest as many people possessing drugs as you want, and they will always be replaced because you’re not actually getting at the root cause, which is drug addiction. So using harsh penalties for possession of drugs doesn’t stop drug use or make communities safe; what does make communities safe is investing in drug treatment and mental health care.”

Coined in 1971 under President Richard Nixon, the war on drugs was a global effort spearheaded by the United States to curb the use and distribution of illegal drugs by way of increased criminal penalties. The effort was significantly expanded under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which subsequently saw the country’s incarceration rate triple from 1980-2000.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research organization founded in 1961, “there is no statistically significant relationship between incarceration for drug offenses and lower rates of drug use, drug arrests, or overdose deaths.” With an estimated $1 trillion spent by taxpayers fighting the war on drugs, and with drug use in the United States climbing over the past decade, many have called into question the strategy of fighting drug use with harsh criminal penalties.


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