April 5, 2016 / 9:10 PM / 4 years ago

Bill to toughen sentences for fentanyl dealers advances in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A bill increasing penalties for possessing large amounts of the potent narcotic fentanyl in California cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, after 10 people died from overdoses in the Sacramento area alone in the past two weeks.

The measure passed unanimously in the state Senate’s Public Safety Committee, despite a broader effort by majority Democrats to shorten sentences for non-violent drug crimes as part of an effort to reform the state’s overcrowded prison system.

“This bill is aimed at major narcotics traffickers,” said Republican Senator Patricia Bates, who introduced the bill. “We’re going after cartel-type organizations that are in it for the money and don’t care how many lives it costs.”

The measure, which now goes to the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee, would add fentanyl to a list of drugs including heroin and cocaine for which prosecutors can seek to lengthen sentences typically imposed if someone is convicted of possessing more than a kilogram.

The additional time would be determined by the amount of fentanyl found, with up to 10 years for possession of 10 kg or more.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert last year about the dangers of fentanyl, an opioid prescribed as a pain reliever for terminally ill patients but also produced in underground labs for sale as a street drug.

It has been blamed for thousands of deaths in the United States. In recent cases in and around Sacramento, the drug was disguised, sold by dealers as the painkiller Norco.

Since a lethal dose can be counted in micrograms, anyone possessing a kilogram of fentanyl should be viewed as a drug dealer, Bates said on Tuesday.

The move to toughen sentences for fentanyl possession and distribution contrasts with an effort by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and many lawmakers to reduce sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

The very day the Senate Public Safety committee approved Bates’ bill, it heard testimony on a measure that would end sentencing enhancements for drug dealers with prior convictions.

A proposed ballot initiative rolling back enhancements and other mandatory sentencing rules has backing from Brown.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney

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