MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday moved to stiffen penalties for the distribution and trafficking of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for a spike in overdose deaths.
Senators voted 26-0 for the bill. The legislation now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward, said an influx of fentanyl in the state has proven lethal.
"It's being mixed with heroin and it's driving up your overdose deaths dramatically," Ward, R-Alabaster, said. "A very small amount, a grain of salt size, mixed in with heroin is deadly. It will kill you."
Ward said state penalties for fentanyl possession are now low, and the bill would make the penalties similar to those for heroin.
A person caught with one-half of a gram to one gram of fentanyl would face a possession with intent to distribute charge, a Class B felony punishable from two to 20 years in prison.
The bill creates mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking larger amounts fentanyl.
A person convicted of having more than one gram would get a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison. Anyone caught with two or more grams would serve 10 years and those caught with four grams or more would serve 25 years. A person would get a life sentence, with the possibility of parole, if caught with eight grams or more.
Alabama followed in the footsteps of Florida which last year toughened penalties for fentanyl trafficking.
Although the bill passed without a dissenting vote, one senator expressed concerns about the mandatory sentences. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said mandatory sentences take away judges' ability to decide who deserves leniency and who should get "the hammer."
"Everybody just gets the hammer," Smitherman said.
The Senate delayed a vote on a separate bill that would have allowed the Alabama Department of Public Health, and local health departments to establish needle exchange programs to try to curb the spread of blood-borne diseases among drug users.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, the bill's sponsor, said a program, which seeks to get dirty and shared needles off the street, could reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis. The bill would not allow state funds to be used to purchase the syringes and needles, but health departments could partner with nonprofit groups.
"I think the state should do this just to save lives," Singleton, D-Greensboro, said. "If we can save one life, I think we are being successful," Singleton.
The Senate delayed a vote on the bill after one senator expressed concerns that a needle exchange program would encourage illegal drug use.
Singleton said he hopes to bring the bill back for a vote later this session.