Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law that significantly stiffens the penalties for fentanyl possession in the state. Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid painkiller that can greatly ease the suffering of cancer patients and individuals recovering from major surgery, but it has also played a role in fueling a nationwide overdose epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives.
Under the new law, the penalty for possessing between four and 13 grams of fentanyl is considered a first-degree felony and carries a minimum custodial sentence of three years. Being convicted of possessing 14 or more grams of the drug will result in a prison sentence of at least 14 years under the legislation, and those caught with more than 28 grams of fentanyl face the prospect of 25 or more years behind bars.
Florida’s attorney general praised the legislation and said that it was needed to get black-market fentanyl off the streets. Law enforcement agencies say that they are struggling to cope with a wave of cheap Asian-made fentanyl flooding into the country over the Mexican and Canadian borders. In May, the opioid situation in the state deteriorated to the point that Gov. Scott was prompted to declare a state of emergency. The bill, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, was supported by law enforcement groups including the Florida Sheriffs Association.
The mandatory minimum sentences in narcotics cases can be severe, but proving drug charges beyond any reasonable doubt is not always straightforward for prosecutors. Drugs seized by police officers may be ruled inadmissible if Fourth Amendment rights appear to have been violated, and the testimony of accomplices and informants may not be enough to convince a jury. Criminal trials can be costly and protracted when the stakes are high, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge prosecutors to reduce the charges leveled against their clients in return for a speedy resolution.