The New York State Senate recently passed a series of 22 bills to address the overwhelming emergency of Heroin and opioid use across the state. Deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, and opioids now cause more accidental deaths than motor vehicles in this country. Something needed to be done, and this package of legislation awaits final passage in the General Assembly and approval by the governor before it can formally take effect.
The bills take a four-pronged approach to addressing the issue of heroin and opioid abuse: prevention, treatment, recovery, and enforcement. This acknowledges that the issue is not simply a matter of passing longer jail sentences and stepping up enforcement. There are no quick and painless solutions to this problem, and this range of legislation suggests a primary focus on areas other than criminal punishment.
As if to underscore the need for action to be taken, the bills were announced shortly after the death of a prominent musician from an overdose of the drug fentanyl. The drug, which can be lethal in exceedingly small doses, is a prescription drug given to patients to reduce pain after surgery. The drug has been available since the 1960s, and is on the federal list of controlled substances as a Schedule II drug.
Fentanyl is hardly an unknown substance when it comes to drug overdose. Over 4,500 seizures nationwide were attributed to Fentanyl in 2014, and just under 1,000 such seizures were recorded in 2013. The drug’s increased availability and use in recent years has caught lawmakers off guard, because it has not yet been added to New York’s schedule of controlled substances. The proposed bills would address this issue, and in particular S6632A would, if passed, make Fentanyl a controlled substance.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to ask why fentanyl was not already illegal. Since it first came on the market a half century ago, the dangers of its use have been well-known. The drug is known to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and has been determined to be deadly in very small doses. It’s better to put it on the list of controlled substances late than not at all, but it was also a very long time in coming.
Another wrinkle in the new legislation is creation of a felony for those who sell drugs that lead to the death of a user. While such a law may sound like a good idea, it would also be very difficult to enforce. In many cases, the addition of fentanyl to heroin enhances the drug’s effect, and greatly raises the risk of an overdose. It is nearly impossible to determine when fentanyl, or any other substance that is mixed into a drug, is added before it is sold and used.
The end seller of a drug is usually not the one who cut the drug in the first place, but the law appears to be more content with holding someone responsible than with identifying when the fentanyl was added.
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