After undergoing a major overhaul in a Senate committee, a bill which started out as a way to punish individuals who distribute an opioid that is linked to a user’s death now instead would create an enhanced penalty for distribution of a mixture of controlled dangerous substances that contains fentanyl.
Senate Bill 359 was amended by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and passed the Senate March 15 with a near-unanimous vote.
The initial bill, which was cross-filed with House Bill 687, was part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Heroin and Opioid Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement Initiative. Hogan still supports the amended version, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
“While we believe our original proposal was stronger, we are happy that the General Assembly is partnering with our administration to address the opioid epidemic, and this legislation sends a clear signal about the seriousness of the effect fentanyl is having on this evolving crisis,” spokeswoman Hannah Marr said in a prepared statement.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Cara L. Sullivan, a Hogan administration official, told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the amended bill Tuesday that the legislation acknowledges the “disproportionately deadly consequences” of fentanyl in communities.
“This is a tool that law enforcement can use to hold accountable those who profit from fentanyl’s sale,” she said.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger also testified in favor of the bill. Prior to the hearing, Shellenberger said he believes prosecutors will bring fewer cases under the changed legislation because the new law requires knowledge that the drug distributed contained fentanyl.
“In a way it’s more expansive because it doesn’t require a death… but it’s less expansive because it requires us to prove knowledge,” he said.
The bill still does address prosecutors’ desires to target mid- and high-level drug dealers, according to Shellenberger, because those will necessarily be the individuals with knowledge of what mixture of drugs is being sold.
A conviction under the revised legislation is punishable by up to 10 years’ incarceration, which must run consecutive to any other sentence imposed.
“When you look at the numbers of deaths involving fentanyl in the states, I think that judges will look at this more harshly,” Shellenberger said.
Committee members criticized the original bill for continuing the “war on drugs” tactics that have failed to deter the sale and use of dangerous substances.
Opponents to the amended bill echoed those arguments and pointed out that the legislation does not include a Good Samaritan provision to exempt someone who received fentanyl as part of a medical prescription. Opponents also claimed limiting the bill’s scope to fentanyl did not properly address the opioid crisis.