After an impassioned debate over minimum-mandatory sentences, the Florida Senate voted Friday to send a bill to the governor that would impose tough penalties on people convicted of trafficking in fentanyl and related opioid drugs.
The bill (HB 477) would require a minimum of three years in prison and a $50,000 fine for people who have between four and 14 grams of fentanyl; a minimum of 15 years in prison and a $100,000 fine for people who have 14 to 28 grams; and a minimum of 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for 28 grams or more.
At the urging of Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, the Senate earlier in the week amended the bill to give judges more discretion in sentencing people convicted of fentanyl trafficking.
But House bill sponsor Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, successfully urged the House to reject the Senate amendment, arguing that anyone possessing four or more grams of fentanyl was not an ordinary drug user. “Dealers need to go to jail,” Boyd said.
The bill returned to the Senate on Friday morning, with Senate sponsor Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, asking senators to back off Bracy's amendment and require minimum-mandatory sentences. It led to a debate where the 40-member Senate was nearly evenly divided on the issue.
“People who are selling this are tantamount to contributing to murder,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who said his son, a sheriff's deputy, urged him to address the opioid crisis, which has led to the overdose deaths of hundreds of Floridians.
But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argued that judges should be given more leeway in sentencing decisions because fentanyl could be mixed with other substances, driving up the gram count and resulting in harsher sentences.
“Judges should have that discretion,” Brandes said.
Under the bill, Steube said fentanyl would be treated like cocaine and other illegal drugs that are often mixed with other substances.
The Senate initially reaffirmed its support for Bracy's amendment in a voice vote. But the Senate reversed that in a 20-18 recorded vote, removing the amendment. The Senate then voted 31-7 to send the legislation to Gov. Rick Scott.
Attorney General Pam Bondi played a role in the resolution of the amendment debate and the eventual passage of the bill. She personally visited individual senators, showing them a vial with a few grains of the drug versus a vial packed with four grams.
It convinced Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “There is no way to justify a vial that is as full as four grams as a user amount or an innocent amount,” Latvala said.
Bondi praised the Legislature's action after the Senate vote.
“Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic opioid that is being mixed with heroin and other drugs -- often with deadly consequences,” Bondi said in a statement. “This legislation has been my top priority this session because it gives us the tools we need to combat the trafficking of these deadly substances.”