Alabama lawmakers may consider harsher penalties for traffickers and distributors of illicit fentanyl next year, but some say a comprehensive approach should also include more health services and helping drug users reduce overdoses.
Republicans Reps. Matt Simpson of Daphne and Chris Pringle of Mobile tell Al.com they plan bills next year to increase penalties for distributing the deadly drug that accounted for 66% of all U.S. overdose deaths in 2021.
Under Simpson’s proposal, prison sentences would increase based on the weight of fentanyl distributed in Alabama.
Similar laws exist in other states, but Simpson’s proposal would be among the harshest. Traffickers caught with more than 8 grams of fentanyl could face a life sentence under his plan.
"This is not the run-of-the-mill old-time drugs that there used to be," Simpson said. "It’s not the pot of the 70s or the cocaine of the 80s. I hate to say it, but it’s not the meth of the early 2000s. It’s highly potent and deadly."
Around Birmingham in Jefferson County, health officials report a 118% jump in fentanyl-related deaths from 2019 to 2022, though this year still has more than three months remaining.
Pringle’s legislation, which he has pitched in previous sessions, allows a felony manslaughter charge against someone who is not a licensed pharmacist and who sells an illicit pill that causes death.
Alabama State House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, a Huntsville Democrat, said he agrees with Simpson that lawmakers, "must do everything possible" to stop the illegal sale of illicit fentanyl. But he told the news outlet lawmakers must also be "smart about how we design tough-as-nails sentencing guidelines that act as real deterrents to those who would traffic in these dangerous drugs."
He said he backs increased penalties, but wants increased addiction and mental health treatment.
Others fear stiffer sentences will stack more inmates in overcrowded Alabama prisons, arguing that there's no proof longer sentences deter drug dealing.
"There is no evidence that mandatory minimums deter the illegal sale of fentanyl and other narcotics, and it will most certainly not prevent any new deaths from their use," said JaTaune Bosby Gilchrist, executive director of the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This will only make our prison challenges worse."
Timothy Dickinson, a University of Alabama criminology professor, said punitive measures won't do much to decrease fentanyl supplies. He said people who ingest fentanyl often do so unintentionally and do not know the drugs they are taking are laced with the substance. He said many people selling drugs may not know either.
"If the users and sellers do not know fentanyl is in their drugs, then it stands to reason that harsher penalties for fentanyl trafficking will not impact their decisions to buy and sell the drug," Dickinson said.
Dickinson and others want to ensure that naloxone, under the brand name Narcan, is freely available. Naloxone is a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, quickly restoring normal breathing to a person if it has slowed or stopped due to the drug use.
The Jefferson County Health Department is distributing naloxone and fentanyl test strips to anyone who requests them statewide, including potential drug users.
Fentanyl test strips, long outlawed and considered drug paraphernalia, were decriminalized by Alabama lawmakers this spring. The strips, which the Jefferson County Health Department offers for $1 each, can identify the presence of fentanyl. Proponents believe test strips can allow drug users to reduce the risks of overdose.
But Virginia Guy, director of the Drug Education Council in Mobile, said education is needed in how to properly use fentanyl test strips.
"Do you sit there with the dealer and say, ’Let me test this. I don’t want fentanyl in it"? Guy said. "I don’t know what you do."