Florida House Passes Bill to Ratchet Up Drug War, Including New Opioid Mandatory Minimums

Update 5/5: The bill also passed through the Florida Senate today. It now heads to Gov. Rick Scott's desk, where it's all-but-certain to become law.

Original post:

Mandatory-minimum drug sentences, which force judges to put drug offenders away for long periods of time, are such a bad idea that even tough-on-crime Republicans have backed away from them. Drug-sentencing reform is no longer the purview of the far-left alone: Even the Koch brothers, who were championing shady political donations before George Soros was a glint in the alt-right's eye, have come out in support of mandatory-minimum reform. Whole documentaries are devoted to the harmfulness of these sentences.

The Florida House of Representatives, however, appears to still be living like it's 1994. Despite all the talk about how destructive the War on Drugs has been to black and brown Americans, the state House yesterday voted unanimously — 118 to zero — for a bill that will ratchet up Florida's drug war, enact new mandatory-minimum sentences for opioid users and dealers, and create new prohibitions against trafficking drugs including fentanyl and synthetic marijuana.

Florida, like most states, is in the throes of an opiate-addiction crisis: The state faces record-breaking numbers of heroin overdoses after pharmaceutical companies spent decades handing out pills like oxycodone as if they were Skittles.

But drug-sentencing experts have warned repeatedly that mandatory-minimum laws only end up hurting addicts, who do not make rational choices or respond to so-called criminal deterrents when they're in the throes of addiction. This bill does nothing to sanction pharmaceutical companies for knowingly causing the crisis.

The bill, HB 477, was proposed by GOP Reps. Kathleen Peters and Charlie Stone as a way to supposedly deter drug dealers from trafficking or selling opioids. But since January, apparently zero members of the Republican-dominated Florida House consulted a single drug-law expert.

One of those experts tells New Times he's flabbergasted the bill passed with such ease.

"This bill has been presented the exact same way as all the other mandatory-minimum bills that have been presented through the years," says Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Nothing changed. If you go back to 1999, lawmakers were making the same promises, that these laws were just for traffickers, that they are drawing the threshold weight so tight that no user is going to get caught up in this, etc. The rhetoric is identical."

In short, the 167-page bill would label fentanyl, fentanyl mixtures, and other, more powerful synthetic opiates as Schedule I drugs, except for pharmaceutical purposes; label anyone caught with four grams or more of fentanyl as a "fentanyl trafficker" subject to a mandatory three-year prison term; force people caught with 14 grams of fentanyl to serve 15 years in prison; and send people caught with 28 grams of fentanyl to jail for 25 years. Judges would have zero discretion to alter those sentences. The prison terms would also come with mandatory fines of $50,000 to $500,000.

The bill would also create similar mandatory sentencing brackets for synthetic cannabinoids, ranging from three years in prison and a $50,000 fine for 280 to 500 grams, to 25 years and a $750,000 fine for 30 kilograms.

(The bill will also add codeine to the list of drugs that triggers mandatory life in jail without parole for people caught with more than 30 kilograms. If those drugs are found to have killed people, those suspects can also be charged with the death penalty.)

But mountains of evidence show that mandatory minimums trap both addicts and poor people of color in spirals of prison time and crime regardless of their circumstances or the power of their addictions. Iowa Judge John Gleeson has been the subject of numerous profiles, including the 2012 documentary The House I Live In, after admitting that forcing low-level drug dealers and addicts into prison was "unjust," "ineffective," and "gut-wrenching."

This past Wednesday, the libertarian website Reason published a lengthy investigation that showed that the existing mandatory-minimum laws for opiate users in Florida are trapping nonviolent addicts in prison for decades instead of sending them into drug-treatment programs.

Newburn, the analyst, says Florida lawmakers are stuck in a useless cycle, where they push mandatory-minimums to "deter" crime and promise that drug-treatment bills will come in the future. But lawmakers rarely follow up on promises to help addicts, so only the harsh punishments remain.

Just as they have done with every other similar bill, House legislators have couched this year's measure as a necessary stop gap to deter dealers from selling fentanyl and synthetic weed on the streets. But Newburn warns that the mandatory-minimum fentanyl amounts are so low that drug users are all but guaranteed to become ensnared by the new rules.

"When you look back on how the last mandatory-minimum heroin law was applied, you see that it targeted not just just traffickers but a lot of low-level offenders, people who were never supposed to be targeted by the bill in the first place," Newburn says. "The low threshold weights were to blame for that."

He says that because the law ratchets up penalties for even fentanyl mixtures, people will likely get caught with life-ruining amounts of drugs without even knowing it. Drug dealers typically mix fentanyl into pills labeled as "oxycodone" or other drugs, and users usually don't know they've bought fentanyl. But if you're caught with a small handful of those pills, you might not even realize those could put you away for decades.

"There's a massive problem with counterfeit pills," he says. "You have people who think they’re buying oxy pills who will end up getting labeled as traffickers in fentanyl. A handful of pills could get you three years. If you buy just 44 pills, you could end up with 25 years in prison."

Newburn also notes that, in 2014, lawmakers had to readjust the mandatory-minimum limits for oxycodone and hydrocodone trafficking because too many low-level users were getting caught up in the dragnet. This year's bill, he says, basically reverses the gains of that law.

"This was the same problem they had to fix three years ago," he says.

However, Newburn says his organization supports HB 477's companion bill in the state Senate, SB 150, because that bill gives judges a "safety valve" to adjust sentences as they see fit. That bill unanimously passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Wednesday. House and Senate lawmakers will have to come to some sort of compromise before presenting a bill to Gov. Rick Scott.

Newburn says he's floored, however, that 118 representatives are still peddling the same rhetoric more than a decade after mandatory minimums have been proven to help nobody.

"There's no reason to think this will work," he says. "We had a heroin mandatory-minimum law for 18 years. Lawmakers promised us it would deter drug use, but now we’re in the midst of the worst heroin crisis we’ve ever seen. And the answer to that is to pass another mandatory minimum?"
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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