The rate at which Alabamians are being arrested and charged under the state’s new fentanyl trafficking law has been moderately low since its implementation in April, but the law’s supporters hold that its ability to curb fentanyl trafficking will be fully realized with time.
Signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey on April 6, House Bill 1 imposed severe penalties for those in possession of fentanyl, ranging from a minimum three-year sentence for possession of between 1-2 grams, to a life sentence for possessing eight grams or more. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, recently spoke to the new law’s slow start during a meeting about mental health.
“We haven’t seen many stops and arrests, I do think the problem is still out there,” Simpson said.
“I wish I could tell you that (fentanyl use and trafficking) has stopped, but it has not. I think it’s still growing, but at least the message is out there, and I think once we start getting the number of people that are actually serving some time … then the message will get out to the traffickers as well.”
Fentanyl use in Alabama has risen dramatically in the past few years, with the number of emergency room visits for fentanyl overdoses increasing by more than 3,000% between 2018 and 2022, from 27 to 839, per the Alabama Public Health Department. Fentanyl deaths have increased as well, with 1,069 overdoses in Alabama reported in 2021, a 136% increase over the previous year, per the National Drug Control Policy.
Yet despite the increased usage of fentanyl and the new penalties for its possession, arrests under the new statute have remained low.
In Mobile County, which according to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has the third-highest number of active offenders with drug-related charges in the state, just nine arrests for fentanyl possession were made by the county’s sheriff’s office since April, according to Lori Myles with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
In south central Alabama, Escambia County Sheriff Heath Jackson told Alabama Daily News that his office had made around a dozen arrests since April under the new statute. Even with the moderately low number of arrests, Jackson held that as word got out among drug traffickers of the increased penalties, the new law’s effectiveness at curbing fentanyl trafficking would grow.
“It’s like when the feds implemented stronger sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine when the crack epidemic hit in the 1980s, you have to try to see (if there will be results),” Jackson told ADN.
“My thing is, you just can’t sit on the sidelines and not try to implement something to see if it will help, you’ve got to do something now. Five years from now, if we look at it and it didn’t do anything to curb it, that’s one thing, but I think it’s going to help.”
Jackson said the dozen or so people arrested for fentanyl trafficking in Escambia County since the new law went into effect were shocked when they heard about the new law.
“Our inmates that are being arrested for possession of fentanyl, (when) they realize the minimum mandatories that come around with it, it’s just a sickening feeling to them; you can watch it on their face when the judge tells them what they’re looking at.” he said.
“It just shocks them because when they’re doing the crime, they’re not worried about it; when they get caught, that’s when their brain starts thinking ‘what have I done.'”
The United States took its first major foray into using harsh penalties as deterrents to drug use and trafficking under the administration of President Richard Nixon, who coined the initiative as the ‘war on drugs.’ That initiative was accelerated under President Ronald Reagan in 1980 to mixed results; while the country’s incarceration rate tripled from 1980 to 2000, the effect on actual drug use rates was negligible.
Jackson considered the harsher penalties to fentanyl possession to be a different approach than the war on drugs, as, he argued, the law was written to target fentanyl traffickers, not users.
“I think when you’re grabbing low-hanging fruit – that’s what I call the drug addicts – when people are concentrating on putting those folks in jail, I think that’s where a lot of the problems are,” Jackson told ADN.
“If we’re going after these large traffickers that are not using drugs, they’re just making a fortune off of it and putting it into communities, I think you benefit from that. I think if we’re targeting the people that are the large traffickers, I think you can get the bang for your buck if you spend your money and time on that.”