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Iowa lawmakers move toward raising penalties for fentanyl distribution


Iowa lawmakers move toward raising penalties for fentanyl distribution

Mar 24, 2023 | 2:33 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
Iowa lawmakers move toward raising penalties for fentanyl distribution
As overdose deaths rise in Iowa, lawmakers are looking for ways to increase penalties for manufacturers who distribute other drugs laced with fentanyl. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As law enforcement agencies grapple with a spike in fentanyl overdoses, the Iowa House moved forward this week with a measure increasing penalties on distribution of the drug.

House File 595 is another of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priorities for the 2023 legislative session.

Overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl are rising in Iowa. The Iowa Office of Drug Control found Iowa drug overdose deaths rose nearly 15% in 2021, with the loss of 429 lives. In 2022, Reynolds reported Iowa saw a 120% spike in overdose deaths for people 25 and younger since 2019.

Many of these deaths are accidental, as a result of street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine that are laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl.

The bill, which passed the House on a 91-3 vote Tuesday, aims to deter people from selling fentanyl-laced drugs by raising penalties for the manufacture, distribution and possession of drugs containing fentanyl, with a maximum 50-year sentence for high quantities of the drug. It also would triple sentences for people convicted in cases involving a death, and double sentences in cases involving an injury due to the drug.

While Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, supported the bill, he said it’s important to keep in mind that enhanced penalties are not necessarily the best way to deter people from crimes. He cited a Department of Justice study that found it was a more effective deterrent to increase people’s perception they would be caught if they committed a crime.

Wilburn also raised concerns about the increased penalties for non-manufacturers. If an addicted person shares a substance they do not know contains fentanyl with a friend or stranger, he said, they could face higher penalties for an offense they committed unknowingly.

“We can load up our correctional system not with the person that is manufacturing, but it was someone who happens to be addicted and shares something,” he said.

In addition to the increased punishments, the bill also expands the availability of naloxone, a drug that can prevent death when administered to an overdose victim. An amendment brought forward by Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, expanded the availability of opioid antagonists to first responders and community-based organizations such as substance abuse rehab centers.

Lohse said while his son was going through substance abuse rehabilitation, he told his father he had access to heroin. Allowing care facilities to distribute Naloxone is one way to make sure Iowa is taking a “well-rounded” approach to the fentanyl epidemic, he said, by both supporting recovery while penalizing dealers.

“If that kind of information and that kind of substance can get into a place where drugs shouldn’t be, a substance abuse disorder treatment facility that’s locked down, then those are the types of organizations that really do need to have these antagonists,” Lohse said. “To ensure that while they’re seeking treatment to better their lives, we can … ensure that they continue with that treatment through to the end.”

A step other states are taking to prevent overdose deaths is legalizing fentanyl test strips: small strips of paper that people can use to test whether drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine contain fentanyl. Rep. Megan Srinivas, D-Des Moines, proposed an amendment adding test strip availability to the bill, saying that the tests have the ability to save lives and could lead to better long-term drug use behavior and recovery, according to a North Carolina study.

The bill’s floor manager, Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, said law enforcement officials asked lawmakers not to include a test strip provision in the fentanyl bill.

“Almost unanimously, they asked us to pump the brakes on this,” Thompson said. “Their major concern … a lot of times, what we’re seeing in some of these states that have expanded it are getting false negatives on those counterfeit pills.”

The bill will next be heard by the Senate, where its companion, Senate File 508, has already passed through the committee process.