Groups Send Letter Urging Congress to Avoid Repeating Draconian Measures of the 1980s
Letter Decries “step backward toward ineffective policy”
Today, close to 100 groups from the civil rights, criminal justice, public health, and faith communities - including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, United Methodist Church, Human Rights Watch, NAACP, and Treatment Communities of America - sent a letter to Senate leadership urging opposition to amendments offered by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to a defense authorization bill. The letter states that the amendments would “widen the net of persons who could receive a mandatory minimum sentence for possessing or distributing the substance fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic, rapid-acting opiate analgesic, commonly added to heroin to increase its potency. The amendments would reduce the amount of fentanyl that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences. For example, under current law, 10 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of an analogue of fentanyl currently triggers a 5-year mandatory minimum. The Ayotte amendments would mean that only 0.5 grams would trigger the 5-year mandatory penalty.
“In a year where we are pushing hard to move criminal justice reform legislation, it is crazy that Republican leadership would allow a vote on such a toxic amendment,” said Michael Collins, Deputy Director of Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “Top Republican Senators like John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley have committed themselves to passing a bill to reduce sentences for drug offenses. They should oppose this amendment, which would be a huge step in the wrong direction.”
Last night, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke for over 40 minutes on the Senator floor in opposition to the amendment, urging Congress to enact real criminal justice reform, and stating that “The opioid epidemic is not a problem we can jail our way out of.” Statements by Kelly Ayotte’s spokesperson indicated that the intent of the amendment is to “ensure that the penalty for trafficking in fentanyl reflects the deadliness of that substance” because fentanyl is estimated to be 50 times more powerful than heroin. But by reducing by 20 fold the quantities that trigger tough sentences to as little as 0.5 grams, the only result will be that low-level drug sellers and even drug users will be swept up by these harsh measures. The head of the DEA testified before the Senate this week that fentanyl was often added high up the supply chain – in China and Mexico. Consequently, the Ayotte amendment targeting low-level traffickers and users would have little to no impact on the drug trade.
“It would be shameful if the only reform that gets done in the Republican-led Senate is an increase in mandatory minimums for drug offenses, rather than a reduction,” Collins continued. “We need to end – not expand - mass incarceration.”