MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s proposed crackdown on fentanyl trafficking could end up putting low-level users in jail for years because of the low drug weights used to trigger tough mandatory sentences, a former U.S. attorney cautioned a legislative committee on Wednesday. The current head of the district attorneys’ association disputed that interpretation, however, and said the low weights are needed because fentanyl is deadly in minute doses.
The competing arguments arose during a public hearing before the House Health Committee on the Senate-passed bill that would set mandatory minimum sentences based on the weight of the drug.
Kenyen R. Brown, former U.S. attorney in Mobile and a critic of the bill, said since fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs — and cases can be prosecuted based on the total weight of the mixture — low-level offenders could be treated like traffickers.
“This will cast a net so big that it will potentially capture every heroin user in the state of Alabama under this law,” Brown told the committee.
Brown described a hypothetical user carrying three or four pills mixed with a number of drugs, including trace amounts of fentanyl.
“This person is carrying around a term of 25 years to life in their pocket without even knowing it,” he said.
Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, disputed that a person who bought heroin or other drugs laced with fentanyl could be charged with trafficking. He said prosecutors would have to prove the person knew the fentanyl was there.
And he said the low weights are needed because fentanyl is deadly in minute doses.
“No part of me or anybody on the proponents’ side wants to put more people in jail,” he said. “This is about lives. This is such a deadly substance.”
Sen. Cam Ward, the bill’s sponsor, said Wednesday that he was open to changing the bill, but wanted to have additional discussions.
“The last thing we want is to make possession of a joint a class A felony,” said Ward, a Republican from Alabaster.
Alabama lawmakers are following in the footsteps of Florida and other states in seeking to toughen penalties for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for a spike in overdose deaths.
Senators lowered the thresholds needed to trigger mandatory sentences before unanimously passing the bill last week.
Under the bill, a person caught with one-half gram of fentanyl would face a charge of possession with intent to distribute, a Class B felony punishable from two to 20 years in prison.
A person convicted of having more than 1 gram would get a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison. Anyone caught with 2 or more grams would serve 10 years and those caught with 4 grams or more would serve 25 years. A person would get a life sentence, with the possibility of parole, if caught with 8 grams or more.
Florida last year enacted minimum sentences for fentanyl possession, but used higher thresholds than the Alabama legislation. Under the Florida law, a person would get at least three years in jail for possession of between 4 and 14 grams of fentanyl.
Michael W. Humber, president of the Alabama Association of Nurse Anesthetists, told the committee he supported the low thresholds in the proposed bill because fentanyl can be deadly in small doses.
Humber said in a medical setting, fentanyl is dosed in micrograms. He held out a syringe to illustrate the size of a diluted dose of 50 micrograms that a person might receive during surgery.
“Can you imagine having 10,000 syringes like this?” Humber asked.