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By Anders Hagstrom
More than 60 criminal justice reform groups signed a letter Monday calling for the dismissal of HR 2851, which would add federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and expand Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ power to set criminal drug penalties.
The bill seeks to “stop the importation and trafficking of synthetic” drugs, which are dangerous alternatives to cocaine and LSD and other street drugs. Advocates of the bill, which is currently in the House Judiciary Committee, argue stricter sentencing is the most effective means of reducing drug crime, but the organizations who wrote Monday’s letter argue softer sentencing and an emphasis on treatment programs is the way forward.
“Our country is at a crossroads. We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic, but tough sentences will not solve the problem because, as we know, our current federal sentencing regime is racially discriminatory, ineffective and in need of an overhaul,” the letter read. “Instead, public health approaches, education, and treatment remain key.”
If the AG finds that banning a substance would prevent its abuse, the law would allow him to issue a temporary order adding it to “Schedule A,” a list of illegal substances, so long as the drug’s chemical makeup is “substantially similar” to that of a substance already on the list.
While critics claim the power is a “deeply misguided and damaging” policy, Republican Rep. John Katko of New York, who introduced the bill, argues the powers granted to the AG are essential because the Schedule A list needs to be able to adapt quickly to the development of new synthetic drugs.
“Currently, manufacturers and distributors of these substances are able to slightly alter the chemical structure of drugs to avoid law enforcement scrutiny and prosecution,” Katko explained in a statement when he announced the bill.
Apart from Sessions’ potential power, the bill ads 13 varieties of fentanyl to Schedule A, a hyper lethal synthetic alternative to heroin that can kill the average adult with a dose of 3 milligrams.
The drug is so potent police in heroin-ravaged communities are now carrying the overdose reversal drug Narcan for their drug sniffing dogs, who face “serious risk of overdose” during raids.
The Judiciary committee met Tuesday to discuss the bill but did not reach a conclusion, witnesses and members have 10 days to submit questions and statements for the record before the either announces a conclusion of continues deliberation.