Senate Criminal Justice Committee favors measures to fight Florida’s opioid epidemic
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee met February 14 to hear two bills aimed at combating the exponential increases in overdoses associated with fentanyl in Florida.
The committee first heard from Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, who wrote SB 280, which makes it easier for prosecutors to indict drug dealers for murder or attempted murder when customers overdose.
Brodeur said, in 1972, Florida determined that the act of distributing heroin or any Class 1 narcotic was considered a capital offense and, if a person supplies an illegal controlled substance, they can be charged with murder if the user dies. Brodeur’s bill changes the statute to add penalties for the person who distributed the drugs even if the user survives the overdose.
“This bill creates a narrow version of law where fentanyl and heroin dealers can be charged with second-degree felonies if [the user] lives. If [the user] dies, [the dealers] can be charged with murder; if not, it’s attempted murder. This bill adds the attempted part,” Brodeur said.
The bill also specifically defines substantial factors that medical examiners can use in determining the cause of death in overdose cases.
Brodeur said more than 80% of drug users in Florida who died of fentanyl overdoses have other drugs in their system and medical examiners are not comfortable naming the substance that caused the death when multiple drugs are present.
In debate, senators were adamant they wanted the dealers punished and not those who shared the drug with someone who overdosed.
“What is the exposure for someone? How do we not catch unsuspecting people who just shared that experience?” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, asked.
“We’re not trying to go after the boyfriend who gave the drug; we’re going up the ladder here,” Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, stated.
To those questions, Brodeur offered an amendment to give state attorneys more prosecutorial discretion when hearing cases.
“The previous language didn’t work, because we want to prosecute up the chain here,” Brodeur said.
Brodeur’s comments were echoed by State Attorney Jack Campbell of the Second Judicial Circuit who was on hand in support of the measure.
“We can now prosecute people who are hurting people with drugs,” Campbell said. “We’ve never seen a drug kill like fentanyl has. People are showing up dying all at once.”
The second piece of legislation is SB 164, which was introduced by Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. Polsky’s bill amends F.S. §893.145 to revise the definition of “drug paraphernalia,” to exclude certain narcotic-drug-testing products. In this case, the products excluded are those that are used to determine whether a controlled substance contains fentanyl.
Polsky called her legislation a great opportunity to save lives.
“Senate Bill 164 would decriminalize fentanyl test strips in Florida,” Polsky said. “Currently, we categorize them as drug paraphernalia. In many cases, teens are dying from counterfeit pills containing fentanyl.”
Sen. Polsky stated that 35 of the other 50 states have passed legislation decriminalizing test strips and that drug dealers are now testing their own products before distributing them.
Sen. Pizzo said this legislation could very well save “your own kid’s life” and said drug dealers using them to test their product isn’t a good enough reason to keep the strips illegal.
“If anyone wants to make the argument that people are using this for nefarious means, it’s not a good argument,” Pizzo said.
Voting in favor of the measure, Sen. Ingoglia said decriminalizing test strips is a necessary step because the opioid crisis isn’t going away.
“I hate this bill and the analysis even more. Just the fact that we must take this step sickens me. What sickens me, even more, is the fact that the CDC must put out guidelines on testing your batch of drugs,” Ingoglia said.
Both bills passed through the committee favorably and were summed up succinctly by the committee chair, Jonathan Martin, R-Ft. Myers.
“We are trying to save lives and we’re doing it with a 1-2 punch. We aren’t going to criminalize strips but . . . if you put that poison in your drugs, we’re coming after you,” Martin said.