Florida bill would increase state penalties for fentanyl trafficking

The proposed legislation comes during a sharp increase in fentanyl overdoses.

Florida has been hit hard by the national explosion in opioid drugs. In December 2016, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, introduced a bill that would establish specific crimes involving trafficking in the painkiller fentanyl, along with related criminal penalties.

Proposals regarding crimes of trafficking in other synthetic drugs are also part of the bill.

The focus on fentanyl

Public awareness of fentanyl rose in 2016 with the untimely death of the singer Prince from a fentanyl overdose.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid analgesic prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain, often after surgery or for serious cancer. The drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Unfortunately, fentanyl is illegally produced, distributed, sold and trafficked in several forms, often mixed with heroin. Some of the fentanyl on the street comes from China. A tiny dose of fentanyl "as small as a few grains of salt can kill, and quickly," reports the Palm Beach Post.

The Bradenton Times reported in early December 2016:

  • The medical examiner of Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties had found 41 fatal fentanyl overdoses so far in 2016.
  • The Florida Department of Law Enforcement Medical Examiners Commission found that Manatee County near Sarasota has had the most fentanyl deaths.
  • The commission said that fentanyl-related fatalities increased by 77.6 percent from 2014 to 2015 statewide.

In this climate, it is not surprising that lawmakers are looking to address the crisis through legislation.

The proposed bill

The bill would define specific trafficking crimes for fentanyl. The Florida drug trafficking statute already includes several drug-specific trafficking crimes and the bill would add explicit fentanyl provisions as follows:

  • Anyone who "knowingly sells, purchases, manufactures, delivers, or brings into this state, or who is knowingly in actual or constructive possession" of at least four grams but less than 30 kilograms of fentanyl, a "salt, derivative, isomer, or salt of an isomer thereof," or a mixture containing any of these substances commits "trafficking in fentanyl," a first-degree felony.
  • For at least four but less than 14 grams, the mandatory minimum prison term would be three years, plus a $50,000 fine.
  • For at least 14 but less than 28 grams, the mandatory minimum prison term would be seven years, plus a $100,000 fine.
  • For at least 28 grams but less than 30 kilograms, the mandatory minimum prison term would be 15 years, plus a $500,000 fine.
  • For 30 kilograms or more, the person commits the first-degree felony of trafficking in illegal drugs, punishable by life in prison with narrow exception. If a death related to the drug crime occurs, it can be a capital felony plus a large fine.

The bill has been referred for review to four senate committees: Criminal Justice, Judiciary, Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and Appropriations. It would take effect October 1, 2017, if passed.

Seek legal advice

In the meantime, many state and federal laws already criminalize nonprescription activity regarding fentanyl and other synthetic or opioid drugs. Convictions under these laws can bring many years of prison, expensive fines and other negative consequences. Under the circumstances, law enforcement is likely to vigorously enforce those laws. Anyone investigated for a drug crime or facing charges should seek immediate legal representation by an attorney.

The criminal defense attorneys at O'Brien Hatfield, PA, with offices in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach, represent those accused of federal and state drug crimes related to fentanyl and other substances across the Sunshine State.