A new law pushed by a Republican candidate for attorney general that sharply increases the criminal penalties for fentanyl possession took effect Tuesday. It sets up a tiered system that doles out increasingly harsher penalties for fentanyl possession based on the amount of drug a person possesses and subsequent convictions.
“The hope is that this sends a chilling effect to those people who are distributing these drugs to our citizens and killing them, because I’ll tell you this, I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who deals fentanyl,” said Louisiana Rep. John Stefanski, one of three candidates for attorney general and the sponsor of the law.
“If you’re dealing fentanyl, you intend to kill people and you’re going to face the consequences for that,” Stefanski, R-Crowley, said.
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, District Attorney Hillar Moore and Coroner Beau Clark joined Stefanski at a press conference and praised his efforts.
“The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Narcotics Division has seized more than 30 pounds of fentanyl and more than 20,000… fentanyl pills,” Gautreaux said. “That is enough to potentially kill more than 150,000 people. That’s one and a half times the people that can fit in a packed Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.”
Stefanski has made cracking down on fentanyl a key part of his attorney general campaign. He faces fellow Republicans Solicitor General Liz Murril and Marty Maley, a former criminal prosecutor. No Democrats have announced for the position.
“I see [crime], as a state, is our number one problem,” Stefanski said in an interview earlier this year. “The AG’s office, even though it may not be the primary role, can’t run from that fight. We need it. We need to be a leader, we need to be going down and making sure you’re using every available tool that that office has to help fight crime”
While Stefanski characterized the law as cracking down on drug dealers and manufacturers, — arguing nobody else would carry around 28 grams of fentanyl — advocates for incarcerated people feel it reaches too far.
The law does not require all 28 grams of the substance be fentanyl but rather some part of the 28 grams contain a detectable amount of fentanyl. When read plainly, it could allow somebody in possession of an ounce of marijuana containing trace amounts of fentanyl to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Gautreaux said he doesn’t intend to abuse that language.
“I’m not looking to go out there and charge a bunch of users,” Gautreaux said. “I want to go after their dealers, and the bigger, the better.”
Ken Levy, a criminal law expert at the LSU Law Center, said increasing penalties doesn’t lower crime.
“If the penalties we already prescribed for possession with intent to distribute aren’t doing enough deterrence, generally, raising the already draconian punishments even higher isn’t going to have much effect either,” Levy said.
Levy argued the drug problem is a matter of supply and demand. While Stefanski’s proposal takes aim at the supply aspect, lawmakers need to discuss how to address the demand, he said.
Lawmakers should consider societal factors that contribute to drug use and work on policies to address the system factors, such as poverty, that created the environment that allows drug use to proliferate in the state, Levy suggested.
In the new law, for an initial offense of possession of less than 28 grams, the penalty is five to 40 years in prison and may include a fine of up to $50,000.
For a first offense of possession of 28 grams to 250 grams, the penalty is seven to 40 years in prison and may include a fine of up to $50,000.
For the first offense of possession of 250 grams or more, the penalty is 35 years to life in prison and may include a fine of up to $50,000.
For a second conviction of possession of 28 grams or more, the penalty is 10 to 40 years in and may include a fine of up to $500,000.
For a third conviction of possession of 28 grams or more, the penalty is 99 years and may include a fine of up to $500,000.