- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - A law signed Tuesday by Gov. Charlie Baker makes trafficking of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug sometimes mixed with heroin, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The Legislature approved the bill as one response to an opioid abuse epidemic that claimed an estimated 1,250 deaths in Massachusetts last year, almost triple the number from five years ago.

The measure is intended to close a loophole in state law that previously meant fentanyl traffickers could only be charged with manufacturing, dispensing or possessing the drug.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and a deadly one,” said Attorney General Maura Healey, who pushed strongly for passage of the bill. “Drug cartels have figured out a way to make this new drug, and they are sending it into our state in massive quantities.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Massachusetts in 2014 had the second-highest number of seizures of fentanyl, which officials said can be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Among those attending the Statehouse bill signing ceremony was Catherine Fennelly, whose 21-year-old son, Paul Connolly, died of a fentanyl overdose in February.

Baker called the addiction crisis staggering and said the new law would help to “break the back of this terrible epidemic.”

The governor on Tuesday also met with Chris Herren, a former Massachusetts high school basketball star who went on to play in the NBA and who now speaks publicly about his own yearslong battle with addiction.

Herren, who first met Baker during last year’s gubernatorial campaign, backs the governor’s proposal to allow doctors and other medical professionals to commit a person involuntarily to a drug treatment facility for up to 72 hours if they’re considered an immediate danger to themselves or others. Currently, a judge’s order is required for a civil commitment and such orders can be difficult to obtain at night or on weekends.

“I can identify personally, being that patient who was put on the street hours after,” said Herren. “I think many lives will be saved and many families affected.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who were also on hand for the bill signing, pledged to take up additional measures aimed at fighting the opioid crisis when lawmakers return from recess in January.

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