Senators Announce Legislation to Charge Fentanyl Pushers More Harshly

Graham, Cotton voice approval of death penalty for major fentanyl traffickers

Sen. Tom Cotton holds an amount of powder he said approximates a volume of fentanyl that could kill thousands of people, with Sen. Lindsey Graham / Getty Images
March 22, 2018

A group of five Republican lawmakers announced new legislation Thursday to increase the charges faced by individuals who traffic in fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for nearly 20,000 deaths in 2016.

Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), and John N. Kennedy (R., La.) are the lead sponsors of the Ending the Fentanyl Crisis Act of 2018. The three were joined by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.) and Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.) at a Thursday press conference, where Sen. Cotton highlighted the high toxicity of even small quantities of fentanyl: just three milligrams are enough to kill an average-sized adult man.

"That's as much like a weapon of mass destruction as it is a drug," Cotton said, comparing that small dose to the 100 pounds of fentanyl recently seized in New Jersey.

A person trafficking two grams of fentanyl—enough to kill over 600 people—currently faces only five years under existing sentencing guidelines, Cotton said. The group's new bill would substantially reduce the mass of fentanyl being trafficked that would result in more serious penalties. Those trafficking half a gram to two grams could face five or more years in prison; trafficking five to twenty grams of fentanyl would earn a penalty of ten or more years.

The bill will additionally appropriate nine million dollars to the U.S. Postal Service to better interdict fentanyl being shipped into the country through international mail. A recent report from the Senate Homeland Security Committee detailed how Chinese fentanyl traffickers regularly send their wares to the United States through the mail service.

Reed defended the harsh new sentences as necessary for deterring the sale of drugs that are destroying lives.

"It's a tool in the tool box that I firmly believe is necessary for our law enforcement community to have available to it to send the message to the worst of the worst: the folks that are peddling fentanyl and these other products to our young men and women, to our fellow citizens, across the entire country, and killing them, and in my humble opinion, doing it knowingly," Reed said.

In keeping with their punitive attitude, Reed, Graham, and Cotton all voiced support for President Donald Trump's proposal that certain drug dealers should face the death penalty for the deaths caused by their wares. Cotton encouraged state and federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty where appropriate under preexisting statutes, and Graham noted that he would be holding hearings in the coming month on implementing the death penalty for fentanyl dealing.

"[Dealers] should be held accountable for killing our fellow Americans to the highest level. And that means taking their own life too," Reed said.

Trump called for the use of the death penalty in certain drug-trafficking related cases as part of the announcement on Monday of his administration's strategy for combatting the opioid epidemic. The administration has promised to pursue death penalties under preexisting federal law, although some have speculated that Trump may seek a new death penalty statute.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo on Wednesday to U.S. Attorneys instructing them on the use of the death penalty in drug trafficking cases. Noting the "unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering, and death" inflicted by the opioid epidemic, Sessions highlighted existing federal statutes which permit a death sentence for drug-dealing-related crimes.

"I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation," Sessions wrote.