Harsher jail terms for dealing fentanyl — a potent synthetic opioid driving a surge of overdoses took effect in Louisiana Tuesday after the state Legislature sought to toughen sentences for a range of crimes.
Act 399 creates tiered penalties for people who distribute the deadly drug, up to mandatory life-in-prison for those caught with 250 grams of narcotics cut with fentanyl. Supporters at a press conference Tuesday called the bill an adequately strict response to the fentanyl crisis, which in south Louisiana alone has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years.
“The hope is that this sends a chilling effect to those who are distributing these drugs to our citizens and killing them,” said state Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, who sponsored the bill during the Legislature’s latest session. Stefanski is running for state attorney general.
Stefanski’s bill cleared both chambers of the Legislature with bipartisan support, though few Democrats voted for it in the House. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner.
Under the law, people caught with up to 28 grams of a substance found to contain trace amounts of fentanyl face five to 40 years in prison. On a first conviction, dealing between 28 grams and 250 grams of the opioid calls for a minimum sentence of seven years, and a maximum term of 40 years. That minimum rises to 30 years on a second conviction; on a third, to 99 years.
A first conviction for dealing over 250 grams — about half a pound — of fentanyl calls for a mandatory life-in-prison term with no opportunity for parole until the sentence’s 25th year.
The law does not require prosecutors to prove people possessed pure fentanyl in those quantities. Confiscated substances just have to contain “detectable” amounts of the opioid to qualify for those sentences.
That part of the law drew criticism from criminal justice reform groups during the legislative session. Opponents said prosecutors would use that portion of the law to aggressively charge people unwittingly caught with small amounts of fentanyl.
East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s deputies have been tasked with taking down major dealers in the city-parish, not users, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux told reporters.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said even minuscule amounts of the drug in other substances have proven deadly.
“Regardless of the amount, it's the effect, and it's still killing people regardless of whether it's mixed with other drugs or other things that have no toxic effect,” Moore said.
Moore also said that tougher state penalties enacted years ago for heroin dealers led to a decrease in overdoses on that drug — evidence that the new fentanyl law will be a success, he said. Asked for evidence that tougher sentences reduced heroin overdoses, Moore said it was mostly anecdotal.
Some criminal justice researchers and experts say that harsher sentences do little to reduce crime.
Fentanyl has ravaged Louisiana in recent years. Between the start of 2021 and mid-2022, East Baton Rouge emergency workers responded 188 times to calls about fatal and non-fatal overdoses at a cluster of low-cost motels in the eastern part of the city-parish. The businesses were the region’s worst locations for overdoses in that period.
East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. Beau Clark advocated Tuesday for more spending on addiction services as well as tougher sentences for dealers.
“The vast number of individuals in our community struggling with addiction is overwhelming,” Clark said. "They need our help. Hopefully, opioid lawsuit money will play a role in assisting these individuals."