In a news conference warning Floridians of the rising dangers of fentanyl in controlled substances, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a proposal to stiffen penalties on drug dealers.
The measure (HB 95), which takes effect Oct. 1, will broaden a prosecutor’s ability to pursue a first-degree murder charge against a dealer if a drug overdose leads to a person’s death. However, the Republican-led Legislature did not decriminalize fentanyl test strips during ping-pong negotiations over the controlled substance bill in the waning hours of the 2022 Session.
Under current law, a drug dealer may face the death penalty — or life in prison — if they sell a controlled substance that verifiably caused the death of a consumer. But prosecutors often struggle to convict in cases involving multiple controlled substances or alcohol.
The bill will lower the standard that prosecutors must meet to levy a capital offense against a dealer. The State Attorney will only have to show the drugs were a “substantial factor” in a person’s death.
Originally a pain management treatment for cancer patients, fentanyl is the leading culprit in the ongoing opioid crisis. Illegally produced versions of the drug, primarily manufactured in Mexico, are up to 100 times more potent than morphine and other opioids.
Contributing to the lethality of the substance, less-potent drugs have sometimes been laced with fentanyl, leading users to unknowingly take deadly doses.
“You go to look at like certain street drugs that are considered, quote, not as lethal — if this fentanyl is in it, then all of a sudden, you’re looking at something that could take your life,” DeSantis said, speaking in Lakeland on Thursday. “If you’re out there, as kids in particular, I would just say, the last thing you want to be doing is just ingesting or using any of these foreign substances. I’m not saying it was ever anything you wanted to do, but compared to where we were like in the ’60s to now, this stuff is really, really problematic.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, substance abuse has been on the rise. For the first time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over a 12-month period. About two-thirds of the deaths were linked to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.
“These are normal kids,” DeSantis said. “They may make a decision here or there and get caught into this, but then with something like this, you don’t really get a second chance.”
In March, five West Point cadets overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine during spring break in Wilton Manors, putting the dangers and pervasiveness of the fentanyl crisis back in the national spotlight. The overdoses happened on the penultimate regularly scheduled day of this year’s Legislative Session, providing a sense of urgency to lawmakers as they hammered out the final details of the bill.
The proposal also increased the minimum mandatory prison sentence for people convicted of trafficking between 4 and 14 milligrams of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues from three years to seven years and, in cases of trafficking between 14 and 28 milligrams, from 15 years to 20 years.
Among other provisions, the legislation will add methamphetamine to Florida’s list of prosecutable controlled substances.
However, lawmakers removed some provisions during negotiations, which ended on the 60th and final regularly scheduled day of the Legislative Session, including language that would have decriminalized fentanyl test strips.
After the spring breakers overdosed, some lawmakers wanted to make it legal for people to obtain strips to test for fentanyl. Currently, the test strips are considered drug paraphernalia.
As the Senate considered the final proposal, Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo urged lawmakers, including Senate bill sponsor and Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur, to revisit the test strip proposal in the future. On the House side, sponsor and Longwood Republican Rep. Scott Plakon dismissed the need to decriminalize the test strips, noting he purchased some online that morning to prove it was possible.
Lawmakers also removed language modifying drug-free zones around houses of worship from 24/7, under current law, to only during services. Lighthouse Point Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer and other Senators considered the zones ineffective and harmful toward minorities.
“This is a you-know-what sandwich,” said Farmer, who voted against the bill. “They took the good thing out. … You took out a valuable tool that’s going to help people not die and you kept some other bad stuff in there.”
Ultimately, the final proposal passed 84-35 in the House and 33-5 in the Senate.
The push to strengthen Florida’s drug laws comes after drug use spiked nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the committee process, the measure faced stiff opposition from activists and criminal justice reform groups, including the ACLU of Florida and the NAACP Florida State Conference. Critics warned the proposal will likely increase the amount of death penalty cases and appeals at a time when public opinion around the issue is mixed.
Lawmakers presented the bill to DeSantis on Wednesday, hours after he suggested President Joe Biden should be an honorary member of Mexican drug cartels for his border policies. The Republican Governor has repeatedly cited fentanyl trafficking as a reason to strengthen the nation’s border enforcement.
House Speaker-designate Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, joined DeSantis in Lakeland on Thursday. Like the Governor, he criticized the Biden administration for “doing nothing at the border” and letting fentanyl across the border in large quantities.
“We have a different approach here in Florida. If you come and sell fentanyl to our citizens, you will spend the best years of your life here in Florida in prison,” Renner said. “This drug is tantamount to murder and in this bill we treat it just like that.”