House, Senate Clash Over Fentanyl Penalties | Off Message

House, Senate Clash Over Fentanyl Penalties

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Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)
After the House quashed a Senate bill last week that would establish additional criminal penalties for people who possess fentanyl, senators are plotting to revive it.

“For the House to completely gut the bill and study it again, it’s disappointing,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who sponsored the legislation and saw it sail through the Senate.

Sears argues that the deadliness of fentanyl — which caused nearly half of the state’s overdose deaths in 2016 — warrants tougher penalties than those already in place for heroin and other drugs. “There’s no place in [state] law that mentions fentanyl, so it’s been difficult to prosecute,” said Sears.

His bill, S.22, would create new penalties specifically for possessing and dealing fentanyl. Possession would bring a maximum of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, and penalties steeply increase for dealing: Someone selling four milligrams of a drug containing fentanyl would face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Lawmakers in both chambers say they’re committed to cracking down on big-time dealers who offer the incredibly potent and increasingly common drug. But the House and Senate disagree over whether S.22 would also ensnare low-level users, who both sides agree should receive treatment, not jail time.

Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which turned Sears’ bill into one that merely calls for a study. That easily passed the House. “We were concerned about creating new crimes, particularly those that we felt had the strong potential to punish people who are really struggling with addiction,” Colburn said.

“The first penalty is for four milligrams, which is basically like the residue of a tiny, tiny bag of heroin,” she continued. “That seemed pretty problematic.”

Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested the House could have altered the bill without completely neutralizing it.

The senator, known for finding creative vessels for passing bills into law, isn’t about to be hamstrung. In an interview Tuesday, Sears explained that his committee is reviewing a House bill addressing bail reform that’s expected to reach the Senate floor soon. He said he’s planning to tack on portions of his fentanyl bill as an amendment to that piece of legislation.

Whatever happens, expect a lively debate when House and Senate members come together to work out their differences in a conference committee.

The challenge, according to Colburn: “How do we use our laws as an effective deterrent without criminalizing addiction?”


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