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Alabama lawmakers approve harsher penalties for fentanyl

Fentanyl United States Drug Enforcement Administration.jpg
United States Drug Enforcement Administration

Alabama lawmakers on Thursday approved harsher penalties for trafficking fentanyl — with punishments of up to life imprisonment — as lawmakers try to respond to the deadly overdose crisis.

The Alabama Senate approved the House-passed bill on a 31-0 vote that came without any debate. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the legislation into law on the same afternoon. The bill sets mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl trafficking based upon the weight of the drug, including up to life imprisonment for possession of eight grams or more of the deadly substance.

“Combatting this deadly drug will continue to be a top priority for our Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and I will do everything in my power to stop this drug from being a killer in Alabama," Ivey said in a statement. The Republican governor used her State of the State address last month to urge lawmakers to approve the stiffer penalties.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid drug. It is often mixed into other drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and counterfeit pain pills so people might not know they are ingesting it. In 2021, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, were responsible for killing more than 70,000 people in the Unites States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lawmakers in multiple states across the country are looking to increase fentanyl penalties in an effort to combat what has been called the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history. The Alabama legislation by Republican Matt Simpson, a former prosecutor, sets mandatory prison sentences and fines for trafficking one gram of fentanyl or more.

Simpson said the weights are for “pure fentanyl” instead of the combined weight when fentanyl is mixed with another drug. He said the intent is to target sellers instead of people who are buying drugs that might have been mixed with fentanyl.

“One gram seems low ... However, one gram can kill up to 500 people. One gram is not for personal use," Simpson said.

The mandatory penalties are:
— Three years in prison for amounts between one gram and two grams.
— Ten years in prison for amounts between two grams and four grams.
— Twenty-five years in prison for amounts between four grams and eight grams.
— Life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for amounts of eight grams or more.

Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said while the bill passed with little floor debate, there had been a lot of discussions with lawmakers ahead of the vote. He said several lawmakers wanted assurances that the weights weren't too low.

“A gram of fentanyl will kill a lot of people," Matson said.

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