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Is There Room For Sentencing Reform In Opioid Crisis Bill?

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Ep Jhu via flickr
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A bill aimed at criminalizing the deadly drug fentanyl is heading to the Senate floor. The measure comes as the Legislature is struggling to respond to the state’s opioid crisis. But the plan has lawmakers questioning whether they should combat addiction with punishment or treatment.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Ep Jhu via flickr /
The Florida Channel

The scope of Florida’s opioid crisis is hard to escape. Recovering addict Katherine Johnson is living it.

“I was brought up in a middle class family. My parents are still married to this day. I was given everything I needed growing up. Didn’t want for anything. In my addiction I ended up homeless, living on the street and sleeping outside,” Johnson said.

Many prescription drug users are turning to heroin for a cheaper and often deadlier high. To meet the demand, dealers are increasingly adding fentanyl and carfentanil to the mix, says Sarasota Republican Senator Greg Steube.

“These drug dealers are splicing fentanyl and carfentanyl with heroin. Apparently if it doesn’t kill you, it gives you a bigger high,” Steube said.

Those synthetic drugs can range between 50 to 5,000times as powerful as heroin. And Steube says death rates are spiking.

“In 2013 there was 185 statewide due to fentanyl. In the following year in 2014 there were 397 deaths. And the following year 2015 there were 705 deaths,” Steube said.

Steube is sponsoring a sweeping bill he hopes will crack down on the state’s opioid crisis. The measure would create new punishments for trafficking in four grams or more of the synthetic drugs. Sheriff Rick Wells of Manatee County says that’s a significant amount.

“Four grams of fentanyl is a lot. 2.2 milligrams is what’s being sold out there on the street. That’s what killing people as we speak,” Wells said.

Under the bill, dealers could be charged with felony murder if the user dies. And the trafficking charges would carry mandatory minimum sentences beginning at three years. The thought of taking more oversight away from judges is spurring a lot of debate. St. Petersburg Democratic Senator Darryl Rouson says dealers deserve to be punished, across the board.

“We’re talking about trafficking and not mere possession. And those who seek to profit off the illnesses of human beings I think need to be treated a little differently,” Rouson said.

Rouson sees dealers as the villains, and users as the victims. But some lawmakers think that line isn’t so clean cut. Orange Park Republican Senator Rob Bradley wants judges to ask those questions, and to analyze each case individually.

“We empower judges in the fact-finding process to do that. And I think it’s possible to be very serious about this scourge and to be tough on this scourge and also to understand that every case has its own individual facts,” Bradley said.

For years, some lawmakers have wanted to rollback mandatory minimums for drug crimes. They want judges to be able to give lighter sentences, or emphasize medical treatment instead of jail time. St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes isn’t convinced mandatory minimums lead to less abuse.

“I think we hope it’s the case. But I don’t think that we have evidence that shows that that works. I am not someone who believes that mandatory minimums… that heroin addicts are thinking about the mandate minimums when they’re using heroin," Brandes said. "I don’t think they’re thinking about that. I think they’re thinking about the next high."

Brandes sees an opportunity to pass the reforms, by piggybacking his plan onto Steube’s bill.

“This issue has died on its own year after year after year. And we feel like these types of bills, that we know that will make it through the process, are the appropriate ones to have a conversation with on this type of issue,” Brandes said.

He says he’ll make his case again when the measure heads to the Senate floor.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.