Public Safety

Lawmakers consider steeper penalties for fentanyl distribution

[A] Senate committee is finalizing a bill that would raise the penalties for sale and possession of fentanyl.

The synthetic opioid, described by a state toxicologist as 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, has increasingly been found laced into heroin. In recent years, fentanyl has been linked to a rising number of opiate overdose deaths in Vermont and across the country.


Fentanyl powder. Drug Enforcement Agency photo

Capt. John Merrigan, of the Vermont State Police narcotics investigation unit, told the committee that fentanyl often is mixed into other substances, and customers do not initially know it is present.

“It’s sold exactly like heroin,” Merrigan told the committee. “It’s as if it was heroin.”

Under the proposal, penalties for knowingly distributing fentanyl would range as high as 20 years in prison with a $1 million fine.

The bill, S.22, aims to separate out customers and midlevel drug distributors — who may not be aware fentanyl is laced into a product — from those who intentionally distribute it.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the bill will fill a hole in current law.

“I think the important thing is that we create a crime that our prosecutors can use when fentanyl is involved and somebody knowingly does this,” Sears said.

Currently, there is no statute that specifically pertains to fentanyl. Crimes related to it are charged under broader statutes related to prohibited substances, according to Sears.

Sears expects the committee will vote the bill out shortly after the Senate reconvenes following the weeklong recess for Town Meeting Day.

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said law enforcement believes fentanyl is “the future of major drug usage in Vermont.”

Because a small amount is extremely potent, it is easier to transport than heroin, he said. Prosecutors in the state wanted to get ahead of any potential future increase.

“We feel that this is an extreme danger that we’re going to be facing in the upcoming years, and we wanted to get a jump on it beforehand if we could,” Campbell said.

Defender General Matt Valerio wants to make sure that drug users who don’t know the substance they have is laced with fentanyl do not face the increased penalties. The bill should target those who are knowingly involved in distributing the substance, he said. The committee’s latest draft makes that distinction, he said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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