A Vermont Senate committee is seeking to create stiffer penalties for people who possess and deal fentanyl.
The drug, which can be 100 times more potent than heroin, has been linked to an unprecedented number of overdose deaths in Vermont. Health officials cited the drug on approximately 50 death certificates in 2016 — compared to 29 in 2015.
A total of 105 people died of opiate overdoses last year.
While the synthetic drug is already illegal to possess without a prescription, the proposed bill establishes additional penalties.
“I think the important thing is we create a crime that our prosecutors can use when fentanyl is involved and someone knowingly does this,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the judiciary committee and is leading the effort.
Heroin and other substances are often laced with fentanyl unbeknownst to the person who buys it. But Sears added: “The bill will distinguish between those who knowingly are cutting heroin with fentanyl versus those who are unknowingly selling heroin laced with fentanyl.”
That’s important to Defender General Matthew Valerio, who is following the legislation. “Fentanyl is dangerous and we need to deal with it, but we want to make sure that the people who are the unwitting users of it … are not treated the same as the people knowingly selling it for profit,” he said. Sears’ committee, he added, is making progress toward that goal.
When fentanyl is mixed with other drugs, the state can only test for its presence, not its quantity. For that reason, Sears’ bill sets penalties based on the total amount, be it pure fentanyl or a blend. The penalties would be stiffer than those associated with possession or sale of pure heroin.
Under the current draft, people who knowingly deal four or more milligrams of fentanyl could face up to 10 years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines. At 20 milligrams, the limit increases to a 20-year sentence and a $1 million fine.
People possessing fentanyl would face up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine for four or more milligrams, and approximately twice that for 20 milligrams.
Sears expects to pass the bill out of his committee when the legislature reconvenes after Town Meeting Day.