Reynolds, Ernst highlight actions addressing fentanyl crisis

By: - May 16, 2023 2:19 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law harsher punishments for the sale, manufacturing and distribution of fentanyl in Atlantic Tuesday, May 16. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

ATLANTIC — Iowa Republicans highlighted their actions to combat the fentanyl crisis Tuesday in response to a shift in immigration policy under President Joe Biden’s administration.

Gov. Kim Reynolds held a fentanyl roundtable in Atlantic with local government and law enforcement officials and Attorney General Brenna Bird. Afterward, Reynolds told reporters that Iowa can’t force the Biden administration to take action on the border, but “we can take a stand by treating fentanyl crimes as the atrocities they are.”

Reynolds was referring to the end of Title 42, a pandemic-related immigration policy that barred most asylum-seekers from entering the country at the southern border.

Reynolds signed House File 595 into law. The new law will raise penalties for the manufacture, distribution and possession of fentanyl. Sentences will be doubled in cases where the drug use results in an injury and tripled when resulting in death.

Reynolds said this measure is necessary as Iowa sees increased overdose rates related to fentanyl. Between 2019 and 2022, there was a 45% increase in opioid-related deaths in Iowa, Reynolds said, and a 160% increase for those under age 25. Iowa law enforcement officers seized six times as many fentanyl pills in 2022 than the year prior, and the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement seized 27,650 fentanyl pills in the past six weeks, Reynolds said.

“This poison — and that’s what it is, poison – is fueling addiction, death and chaos,” Reynolds said. “It’s no mystery where the flood of drugs is coming from and how they’re getting into our communities and what needs to be done. What is a mystery is why the Biden administration refuses to act.”

The governor brought the measure forward in January, naming harsher punishments for fentanyl distribution as one of her top priorities for the 2023 legislative session. She said the new law will give local authorities better ways to go after people who distribute counterfeit pills.

The roundtable took place in Cass County, the site of a six-month investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies into a series of fentanyl overdose cases in Cass and Shelby counties. In June 2022, five Cass County residents were arrested for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. All of the defendants have plead guilty in the case, which law enforcement began investigating following five fentanyl-related overdoses in the area.

The defendants were being sentenced in federal court Tuesday, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said.

“The legislation being signed today will undoubtably equip law enforcement and prosecutors with another needed tool designed to dismantle those drug trafficking organizations that insist on peddling poison to the people of Iowa,” Bayens said.

Reynolds said providing treatment is another “leg of the stool” in combatting the fentanyl crisis. The bill also expands access to naloxone, a drug used to prevent overdose deaths, allowing more people to obtain the drug in preparation for emergency situations.

Democrats attempted to expand the bill to legalize fentanyl test strips, which could help opioid users avoid accidental overdoses from pills laced with fentanyl. Republicans voted the measure down, saying law enforcement officers asked them to “pump the brakes” on legalizing the tests, as other states have reported cases of counterfeit pills getting false negative results from the tests. Reynolds also told reporters she would not support legalizing fentanyl test strips.

Bayens said while the bill focuses on stopping “supply” of fentanyl, naloxone access and increased education about the danger of fentanyl is needed to stop demand for the drug.

“No one in law enforcement thinks we’re going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Bayens said. “It’s silly to think that. … But really, what we want to address, and the cleaner thing is to address demand.”

Ernst highlights border trafficking

In Washington D.C., Sen. Joni Ernst also called for increased attention on fentanyl trafficking through the U.S.-Mexico border.

“These Mexican transnational criminal organizations have used the unsecure southern border as an open highway: 90% of fentanyl traffic to our homeland flows through our southern border,” Ernst said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “With the end of Title 42, this will only get worse.”

The bill would direct the country to label fentanyl trafficking as a “national security threat,” and would require the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a strategy to counter the flow of fentanyl into the country. The legislation would require federal law enforcement and the military to work with the Mexican government and military on combatting drug trafficking organizations.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found most fentanyl is produced in China and Mexico, and transported into the U.S. through legal ports of entry by U.S. citizens, not undocumented immigrants. Democrats have criticized Republicans for linking fentanyl trafficking to immigrants and those seeking asylum.

Ernst said while she has taken separate efforts to increase resources devoted to intercepting vehicles trafficking fentanyl along legal ports of entry, she said migrants also bring fentanyl into the U.S. “in between those ports of entry.”

“With Title 42, we just need to be aware that there will be more people coming in unfettered,” Ernst said. “They’re basically checked in and sent on their way by the Border Patrol agencies. So it is something that we need to be aware of with greater levels of people crossing … those are the ones that we really need to be aware of and scrutinized heavily.”

The bill has bipartisan support, with Ernst and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine leading in the U.S. Senate, and Reps. Stephanie Bice and Salud Carbajal in the House. Ernst said she and her co-sponsors hope to introduce the measure into the National Defense Act for passage this year.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.