Memo to Congress: More Severe Penalties for Opioids Won't Work

Research has shown that tougher penalties do not deter drug abuse; that harsh penalties tend to affect the wrong people.


Against that backdrop, it is not surprising that federal lawmakers are trying to increase penalties for drug crimes related to the opioid epidemic.


Specifically, the Senate recently discussed a bill that would lower the amount of fentanyl in order to trigger mandatory minimum sentencing. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that is sweeping the nation with increasing incidents of overdosing.


Proponents of the bill theorize that tougher sentencing will deter opioid dealers from distributing fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. They hold true to the mistaken notion that harsher penalties reduce supply which will impact demand. Tougher penalties have failed Congress time and again over the demand for fentanyl.


Congress only has to look at its failed War on Drugs. Since that war declaration drug overdoses have steadily risen while the nation’s prison population has skyrocketed. One expert notes that in 1990, around 15,000 people were incarcerated for dealing drugs. Now, around 450,000 people fit in that category. Looking at those numbers, it’s clear that those “tough on drug crime” laws do not work.


Let’s why these “tough on crime” types of laws fail.


The Reasons Longer Drug Sentences Don’t Work


In 2016, more than 60,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. So it’s understandable that lawmakers want to take some kind of action.


Here’s why longer, tougher sentences are the wrong way to go:


  • The threat of getting caught is enough. Multiple studies have found that people fear getting caught for illegal drug activities. However, that fear doesn’t increase when penalties increase. In other words, it’s the actual probability of getting caught that serves as a deterrent rather than worry over specific penalties.
  • The wrong people get targeted. Though lawmakers say they intend to go after high-level dealers and offenders, that hasn’t been how it’s played out. When longer sentences became the norm in the ‘80s, thousands were locked away – but it was for low-level offenses. Unsurprisingly, this did little to stop the crack epidemic. What it did do was punish addicts and decimate communities by imprisoning entire generations of usually young men.
  • The root problem is not addressed. What’s the root problem? When you’re talking about imprisoning addicts, the problem isn’t the crime, but the addiction. We need to come up with solutions that address their need for the drugs in question rather than punishing them for succumbing to a chemical dependency. Otherwise, they reenter society and go right back to using, leading to repeat offenses.
  • Former felons are stigmatized. Under both past and current legislation, a common drug user can receive a long prison term for possession or distribution. When they reenter society, they do so with a felony hanging over their head. A felony conviction makes it difficult for them to find quality work or housing, and often results in condemnation by the community. As a result, they are far more likely to go back to using drugs, and often turn to criminal activities to survive.


Houston Federal Drug Attorney

Truly harsh penalties should be reserved only for the heads of the opioid distribution channels, while the individuals at the end of the consumption line would be better served through rehabilitation.


How Treatment Programs Help


Treatment programs are much more effective in breaking the destructive cycle of repeat incarceration than criminal penalties. They can include the following measures:


  • Giving first responders greater access to naloxone, which can save lives by reversing overdoses;
  • Making methadone and buprenorphine more widely available in managing addictions;
  • Increasing funding for assessment and detoxification programs;
  • Boosting programs that address mental health issues and socioeconomic challenges;
  • Funding community development programs;
  • Improving data collection for fentanyl use;
  • Monitoring prescription medication use;
  • Furthering collaboration between public health programs and law enforcement; and
  • Increasing police patrols, since the chance of being caught is one of the best deterrents


This isn’t something that’s merely theoretical, either. Many areas around the country have implemented programs doing some of these things.


In Mentor, Ohio the court system there has introduced alternative treatment programs for misdemeanor drug offenses. Defendants are assessed before joining a program that lasts between 18 and 24 months. They submit to counseling, constant monitoring, and drug tests under caring supervision.


The program is offering a way out for good people who have been caught up in doing bad things.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works in most places, and certainly not at the federal level.


What are you up against if you get charged for fentanyl at the federal level?


Federal Penalties for Opioid Drug Crimes


Federal Penalties for Opioid Drug Crimes

Here is a breakdown of federal penalties for fentanyl.


For 40 to 399 grams of fentanyl in the Schedule II category, or 10 to 99 grams in the Schedule I category, the base penalty is at least five years in prison and up to 40 years in prison for a first offense, and a fine of up to $2 million for an individual. A second offense will result in a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and up to life in prison plus a $4 million fine.


For at least 400 grams of fentanyl in Schedule II or at least 100 grams in Schedule I, the base penalty is at least 10 years and up to life in prison and a $4 million fine. A second offense will result in at least 20 years and up to life in prison plus an $8 million fine. Two or more prior offenses will result in life imprisonment.


What does all of this mean to you?


If you are facing opioid charges, a conviction can wreck your entire life. Because of this, it’s essential you speak with a knowledgeable federal criminal attorney immediately. Call today for a free consultation. We will help you fight your charges with the strongest possible defense.