Lawmakers confront fentanyl crisis with stiff punishments

By: - February 15, 2023 5:10 pm

People have died from ingesting a single counterfeit pill containing fentanyl. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A bill that advanced Wednesday from an Iowa House subcommittee includes significant penalties for dealing drugs that contain fentanyl — with the prison sentences tripling if someone dies because of the crime.

The legislation is poised to be an amalgamation of proposals put forth by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird. They are seeking ways to combat the rise of the synthetic opioid, which is relatively cheap to produce but can be 100 times more powerful than morphine.

While some illicit drug manufacturers have added fentanyl to heroin to give it the appearance of higher quality, the synthetic drug has also been found in counterfeit pills that mimic less-potent painkillers.

Those pills can be dangerous because they might lack the necessary quality controls to ensure they don’t contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.

Accidental deaths have been noted in Iowa from ingesting a single counterfeit pill, and Reynolds warned in 2022 that the state crime lab had analyzed four times as many of the pills in the first six months of that year compared with the entirety of the previous year.

Last month, Bird spoke in favor of legislation that would establish a new crime for deaths that are caused by illegally distributed drugs.

Under the bills — House Study Bill 44 and Senate Study Bill 1018 — someone who manufactures or deals an illegal drug other than marijuana that causes the unintentional death of someone else can be found guilty of a felony charge that is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

The bill considered Wednesday — House Study Bill 104 — lays out a variety of penalties for manufacturing, dealing or possessing fentanyl-containing drugs based on quantity. Smaller amounts would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and the largest amounts could draw a 50-year sentence.

The bill also includes sentencing enhancements if someone is seriously injured or dies as a result of the crimes and would preclude the options of deferred judgments and suspended sentences. Injuries would trigger a doubling of prison time and deaths would triple it.

A House Judiciary subcommittee advanced the bill Wednesday, with members noting that it should be amended to perhaps include provisions of the legislation that Bird supports.

Another aspect of the bill seeks to expand the availability of opioid antagonists — which are used to reverse overdoses — to law enforcement agencies, emergency medical services, schools and others.

Subcommittee member Rep. Brian Lohse, a Bondurant Republican, said the bill is “only one piece of the fentanyl puzzle” and that more should be done legislatively to tackle the problem.

“This can’t be the only thing we do,” Lohse said. “We have to deal with supply. We have to deal with treatment. We have to deal with all of those things.”

He noted that lawmakers should discuss whether to legalize test strips that drug users can use to detect fentanyl in a variety of illicit drugs, as a preventative measure against potential overdose. They are currently classified as drug paraphernalia in Iowa.

Former Attorney General Tom Miller called for the tests to be legalized last year.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.