By Mike Regan
We are all well aware of the opioid crisis plaguing Pennsylvania. What started with prescription drugs has evolved to heroin and now, the most prominent opioid that is taking the lives of so many is fentanyl.
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), fentanyl was present in 67 percent of Pennsylvania’s overdose deaths in 2017, which represents a rate of 43 deaths per 100,000 – nearly double the national average of 22 per 100,000 in 2017.
Pennsylvania had a 65 percent increase in drug-related overdose deaths between 2015 and 2017, a contributing factor according to the DEA was fentanyl.
What Pennsylvania doesn’t have are mandatory minimum sentences outlined in statute to help our prosecutors get fentanyl dealers off the streets.
Our current drug trafficking laws do not address fentanyl, so our prosecutors have few resources – and no leverage – when trying to do their job and in turn, protect our communities.
In our current criminal justice reform culture, mandatory minimums for drug trafficking tend to be viewed in a negative light.
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They are seen as an all-or-nothing punishment leading to overcrowded prisons. But we are not talking about marijuana here, we are talking about a potent killer – one that drug dealers knowingly sell to sometimes unsuspecting users.
In addition to users, our law enforcement officers and first responders are facing dangerous, life-threatening situations when handling victims and suspects and conducting searches.
Last month, the largest fentanyl bust in United States Customs and Border Patrol history occurred in Arizona when more than 254 pounds was seized. This amount of fentanyl had the potential to kill nearly 60 million people – just a few salt-sized particles can be harmful.
So, not only are we dealing with a dangerous drug, it could be used as a chemical agent to intentionally harm our country. Sadly, a recent report from the non-profit National Safety Council declared that Americans are now statistically more likely to die from a drug overdose than in a motor vehicle accident.
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It is time we take serious action to get not only the dealers but the actual fentanyl off our streets.
We must do what we can to protect Pennsylvania. What we also must do, is continue our efforts to assist those who are caught in the throes of addiction to get the help they need.
While my legislation establishes a five-tier sentencing structure, based on the amount of fentanyl a person is caught with, it is important to know that Pennsylvania has an alternative option for addicts who are caught with the drug.
The State Intermediate Punishment (SIP) Program is a long-term treatment alternative to a mandatory prison sentence. Without mandatory minimums on the table, however, traffickers who might be eligible for the program have no reason to enter the program or cooperate with law enforcement, which can help police apprehend additional and even more significant dealers.
As evidenced by the low number assigned to the legislation, Senate Bill 8 is a top priority for me, as well as the Senate Republican Caucus.
The legislation has 21 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, as well as full support from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the Coroners Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the State Troopers Association, as well as Just for Today (JFT) Recovery and Veterans Support Services, located in the 31st Senatorial District in Lemoyne.
All of these supporting entities have first-hand experience in dealing with the opioid crisis that has turned into a fentanyl epidemic.
It is not only consuming families dealing with addiction and tragic losses, but it is consuming the work of our law enforcement officers, first responders, prosecutors, and addiction service providers. They are on the front lines dealing with this on a daily basis.
Despite differing views of mandatory minimums, we all must look at this issue for what it is – a killer on the loose in our communities.
We must stop the flow of fentanyl by getting the drug kingpins off the street. They are selling a lethal substance, and they must be held accountable and stopped, if we want to have any hope of bringing an end to this epidemic.
State Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican, represents the 31st Senate District, which includes parts of Cumberland and York counties. He writes from Harrisburg.