- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2018

Heeding President Trump’s call to “get tough,” Capitol Hill Republicans filed legislation Thursday that sets lengthy prison terms for fentanyl dealers, saying criminals must think twice before they peddle synthetic powders that can fit into a salt shaker, yet kill tens of thousands.

The bill says people caught selling as little as 2 grams of pure fentanyl would face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. A person dealing 20 grams of the drug would get a 10-year minimum.

Under current law, someone would need to sell at least 20 times those amounts to get those respective terms.

“The more fentanyl you have, the more prison time you get,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and lead sponsor.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he will take it a step further and explore ways to impose felony murder charges on people whose fentanyl sales lead to overdose deaths, particularly since heroin users often don’t realize their purchase is cut with the potent synthetic.

Someone who dispatched arsenic to unsuspecting victims would face harsh consequences, he noted, rallying behind Mr. Trump’s push to execute the worst traffickers.

“To the president — you are absolutely right to focus on the deterrence part of this,” Mr. Graham said.

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and is pouring into the U.S. from clandestine labs in China and Mexico.

Its prevalence has shot up in the last few years, making it the No. 1 killer in an opioid epidemic that is claiming tens of thousands of Americans per year.

Mr. Trump recently told Congress to craft stiffer penalties for drug traffickers, while instructing the Justice Department to pursue the death penalty for drug “kingpins” under existing law.

The plan drew a rebuke from health experts who say the focus should be on treatment and recovery to reduce demand, rather than incarceration. They also said lengthy prison terms don’t work, since users are motivated by addiction and dealers are driven by quick profit.

“This is an economic decision that they’re making. They also don’t know what the penalties are to begin with, and never will,” said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group.

Sponsors of stricter terms think the plan will prod some dealers to change their business model, even if they don’t stop selling drugs altogether.

Synthetic opioids are so deadly, they say, that even a small reduction would be a win.

Mr. Cotton, the lead sponsor of the sentencing plan, said federal penalties should be updated to reflect the rising tide of fentanyl, citing a New Jersey seizure of 100 pounds of the drug — enough to kill 18 million people.

One of the men convicted of the crime received less than a decade in prison, leaving Mr. Cotton incredulous.

“Six years for 100 pounds of fentanyl,” he said.

Ms. Gotsch objected to lowering the quantity thresholds for minimum sentences, however, saying underlings on the street will be swept up and prosecuted for their bosses’ decisions to put fentanyl in their supply.

“That is what’s happened for decades now. It is the low-level folks on the totem pole who are getting these mandatory minimum sentences,” she said, adding: “They are replaced the next day.”

Mr. Cotton said under his bill, drug dealers who didn’t realize that fentanyl was mixed into their heroin would be out of luck.

“Like all drug laws, you’re responsible for what you’re carrying and what you’re selling,” Mr. Cotton said.

Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana said the typical dealer knows exactly what he’s doing and shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves.

“This is a pretty big incentive here,” he said. “If you traffic the fentanyl and you cut the heroin with fentanyl and you get caught, we’re gonna dig a hole under the jail and put you there, and you’re gonna stay in a long time.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana is a fourth cosponsor of the Senate plan, while Rep. Tom Reed, New York Republican, is pushing the idea in the House.

Mr. Kennedy, in particular, backed Mr. Graham’s push to impose felony charges, saying someone who kills people through deception would face the full extent of the law.

“If I walk into a Winn-Dixie, to a grocery store, and I replace a six-pack of Bud Lite with a six-pack of ‘Battery Acid Lite’ in the same cans — just to see what happens — and someone drinks it and dies, I’m gonna get life. I’m gonna get the death penalty,” he said. “I don’t understand the difference.”

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