Sen. Kelly Ayotte seeks stricter penalties for fentanyl dealers, despite pushback

  • Sen Kelly Ayotte speaks at in Durham on April 26.

Monitor staff
Published: 6/8/2016 12:38:14 AM

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is proposing stiffer federal penalties for people caught with small amounts of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller linked to Prince’s death and more than half of the drug overdose deaths in New Hampshire last year.

But Ayotte’s plan is facing pushback from advocates who say it’s a step in the wrong direction that will incarcerate drug users instead of treating and preventing addiction.

“If you have a problem with drugs, federal prison is the last place you should be,” said Michael Collins, deputy director at the national Drug Policy Alliance. “You should get treatment.”

Fentanyl is sometimes used in hospitals to treat severe pain. The drug can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, and was involved in more than half of New Hampshire’s 439 drug overdose deaths last year. Fentanyl is often laced with other substances, state officials say, meaning users often don’t know they are using the powerful drug.

Ayotte’s legislation would impose a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence on people who manufacture, distribute or possess with the intent to distribute at least half a gram of fentanyl. Right now, people must be caught with 20 times that amount – at least 10 grams – to trigger the five-year penalty.

Because of fentanyl’s potency, Ayotte said the change is meant to bring penalties in line with those for heroin. People must be caught with at least 100 grams of heroin to prompt the five-year federal prison sentence. 

“You could have massive amounts of fentanyl, but not be held to the same (standard),” said Ayotte, who added the change was suggested by law enforcement. “We want to make sure it’s equalized, so people trafficking in fentanyl are properly held accountable.”

But opponents argue Ayotte’s proposal will be used by prosecutors to imprison low-level drug users, who carry small amounts of fentanyl, perhaps unknowingly, and sell it to pay for their addiction. That approach was tried decades ago during the so-called war on drugs, Collins said. It led to mass incarceration, he said, and has done nothing to prevent or stop the current drug crisis.

“This is not policy, this is politics,” Collins said, suggesting the bill is meant to help bolster Ayotte’s re-election chances against Democratic opponent Gov. Maggie Hassan this year. 

Advocates said a different measure Ayotte backs, known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, is a better public health approach. 

“All these mandatory sentences have not stopped the heroin problem,” said Molly Gill, legislative director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “If (Ayotte’s) amendment passes it is going to put addicts and users into prison, instead of the international traffickers we should be focused on.”

Ayotte is proposing the amendments as part of a national defense bill set to come up for debate in the U.S. Senate this week. She introduced a similar measure last year, but the bill didn’t come up for a vote. Ayotte’s proposal also asks the comptroller general of the United States to submit a report to Congress on fentanyl supply chains.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat and New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator, didn’t say whether she supports Ayotte’s fentanyl amendment. Shaheen is still “reviewing the proposal,” according to spokesman Nick Brown.

Last year, 161 people died here from fentanyl overdoses and 122 more died from overdosing on fentanyl mixed with other drugs, including heroin, according to the state medical examiner’s office.

Most of the fentanyl found on the streets in New Hampshire is smuggled from Mexico, but it can be produced locally using basic chemistry supplies, according to law enforcement.

Responding to the rising deaths, the state put stricter penalties in place this year for people who sell or distribute fentanyl, but the New Hampshire law does not impose mandatory minimum sentences for those offenders. 

Ayotte said if her amendments don’t get a vote this week, she will look for another bill to attach them to.

“It’s about keeping it equal with heroin,” she said. “This is the drug that is one of the most significant drivers of our increase in deaths.” 

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.) 




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