- Associated Press - Friday, May 5, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Legislation that creates tougher penalties for people caught with fentanyl or synthetic forms of the deadly drug has been sent to Gov. Rick Scott, along with a contentious provision that imposes minimum mandatory prison sentences.

The Florida Senate passed the measure on Friday with a 31-7 vote after stripping an amendment that would have given judges more discretion in certain cases. Senators called it a “safety valve” in extenuating circumstances, but after the House rejected the idea, the Senate reversed its stance to save the bill.

Rep. Jim Boyd, the Republican House bill sponsor, said the whole point is to send people caught with 4 grams of fentanyl to at least 3 years in prison. The opioid painkiller can be 100 times more potent than morphine, and is often times mixed with other drugs and sold as heroin or in pills, so people holding that amount are traffickers, not users, he said.

Under current state law, there is no criminal penalty for trafficking fentanyl. The bill would change that, putting fentanyl in the same category as heroin, and include murder charges for the dealer of the drug when the buyer overdoses.

The bipartisan effort had backing from Florida’s Attorney General’s Office and sheriffs’ association. Supporters said it’s designed to crack down on fentanyl traffickers, not drug addicts. Opponents argued the mandatory minimums will criminalize drug users, not just dealers.

“We can’t go back home without dealing with this; people are contributing to murder and it has to be stopped,” Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley said during debate. “We need to cut this epidemic now before this cancer spreads.”

The number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths has soared. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 more than 700 people died in Florida as a result of fentanyl.

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