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Senators consider adding new mandatory minimums for fentanyl

The drugs fentanyl and carfentanil have been playing outsized roles in the opioid epidemic, which is already high-profile. Fentanyl is considered to be about 100 times more powerful than morphine, while carfentanil is perhaps 10,000 times more powerful. Yet even though carfentanil is meant to tranquilize large mammals like rhinos and hippopotamuses, the drug is sometimes mixed with heroin or other opiates used by addicts.

These potent synthetic opioids pose a real risk to law enforcement, according to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He recently warned officers to avoid any exposure to the drugs, as people are overdosing in record numbers. He warns that America doesn't have time to debate whether the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis or a matter best handled by law enforcement.

Is it really true that there's no time for debate? Or is fear rushing us into making bad policy decisions?

Senators formerly in favor of reform now support new mandatory minimum sentences

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) had both been on the side of shortening sentences for federal drug offenders, especially those convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses. They had been working on it for four years as part of a bipartisan criminal justice reform project.

That's why it came as a surprise when both voted for a bill that would create new mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

As we've discussed before on this blog, many reformers believe that the tough, mandatory minimum sentences passed in the 1980s have done little to avert drug use but have flooded our prisons with non-violent offenders. This is extremely expensive in terms of taxpayer money, and at least as costly in family and personal terms. It seems these harsh sentences serve no real law enforcement purpose, but lead to hardship, unemployment and the destruction of families in communities already suffering from drug abuse issues.

"The problem is really we've been here before with this approach in terms of the war on drugs and ramping up sentences, and we know that escalating sentences ... does nothing to help the opioid epidemic," said a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance. "In fact, it only serves to increase the prison population."

We urge all lawmakers to base our drug policies on tactics proven to work. Neither harsh sentences nor escalating enforcement has been shown to deter drug activity, but treatment has.

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