Nevada Lawmakers the Latest to Debate Harsher Fentanyl Laws

. The bills would make it so that first-time offenders caught with less than four grams of fentanyl would face a category E felony charge with a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

CARSON CITY (Nev.) -- Two bills were heard Monday by a Nevada state Senate committee. They could have made the state the latest state to reduce the amount of fentanyl that is subject to trafficking charges. This was in response to the worst overdose crisis in American history.

This debate pits law enforcement officers against harm reduction advocates. It has implications for how America's deadliest drug is prosecuted and whether low-level users can be included with traffickers.

"I have dreams and nightmares over making sure that this bill doesn't create the war on drugs that was started by crack cocaine," said Aaron Ford, Democratic Attorney General. He introduced one of these bills.

Experts in harm reduction said that the bills would accomplish exactly this. Although law enforcement was more supportive of harsher penalties, they opposed the implementation of a late-amended prison and drug treatment program.

Fentanyl is mostly imported from Mexico. It is often mixed with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. It is sought out by some users. Some users don't realize they are taking it.

Fentanyl can cause death in as little as 2 mg.

States that have reduced drug possession penalties in recent years are now considering imposing longer prison sentences for those who possess smaller amounts of drugs. Other states, such as Alabama, West Virginia and South Carolina, are considering or passing harsher penalties to those who possess lower amounts of fentanyl. This is in response to the increasing number of overdoses.

The sponsors say that the two companion bills will give law enforcement more tools to pursue traffickers who bring fentanyl into the state. According to the Attorney General's Office, Nevada had 497 deaths due to overdose from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro gives illicit fentanyl a separate substance category. She prosecutes anyone who 'knowingly or intentionally' possess the drug as low level felony trafficking, starting at 4 grams. Mandatory prison time. Ford's bill deals with trafficking at mid-to high levels starting at 14 grams and escalating to life imprisonment.

Fentanyl, currently a Schedule 2 substance, means that possession of 100g of the drug is considered trafficking. This is a result Ford and Cannizzaro's support for a comprehensive 2019 criminal justice reform law.

Ford had previously called the law's provision to lower trafficking penalties for all drugs 'overinclusive'. Ford had previously described the law's provision to lower trafficking charges for all drugs as 'overinclusive.' However, he stated Monday that the bill actually advances that law’s intent to adjust penalties and weights based on specific drugs.

Coalition of harm reduction advocates stated that the bill would combine low-level users who require treatment with high-level traffickers who are pushing large amounts of fentanyl into state. They claim that several provisions will undermine trust in law enforcement.

Ford's bill is null from the state's "Good Samaritan" Law, which exempts individuals from criminal drug possession charges and allows them to report an overdose. Cannizzaro made a late amendment to the law that added lower amounts.

The state's crime labs are a major concern. They only test for fentanyl and not for its exact amount in a drug mixture. Many said that anyone with more than 4 grams of an illicit drug containing less than a few milligrams fentanyl could face trafficking penalties. Law enforcement officials have stated that switching to a proportional testing system will be expensive. Ford indicated an openness for the state to study how to make the switch.

John Piro, Clark County's chief deputy public defender, stated in an interview that if we are going to treat it differently because that's their message, then we must be accurate. "And right now, it's not accurate.

Although they support lower trafficking penalties, many law enforcement agencies oppose mandatory medication-assisted treatment programs in prisons and prisons throughout the state for substance abuse disorders.

Jason Walker, Washoe County Sheriff's Department, Reno, stated that they have a successful (Medication Assisted Treatment) program. I believe it would be difficult to put together a MAT program for smaller agencies.

Five bills had been introduced related to fentanyl penalties in Nevada, but the three Republican-backed bills -- which give much lower trafficking thresholds -- have not gotten a hearing in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Every bill must be signed into law by a Republican Governor. Joe Lombardo (ex-Sheriff of Clark County) criticized the 2019 criminal justice reform law for being'soft on crime' and supported making fentanyl possession up to any amount a felony in the same category as trafficking.

To move forward, the two bills must be voted upon this week. Friday is the deadline for bills that make it to their first committee. ____