Fentanyl Is A "Weapon Of Mass Destruction," Senator Says

By Paul Gaita 03/27/18

An Arkansas senator made the comment while introducing a bill to make tougher penalties for fentanyl dealers.

Senator Tom Cotton
Senator Tom Cotton Photo via YouTube

A group of Republican senators led by Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) have put forth legislation that would impose more severe penalties on fentanyl traffickers.

Speaking at a press conference at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 22, Cotton likened the synthetic opioid and its analogues to a "weapon of mass destruction" due to its high potential for overdose death, and said that his bill would assist law enforcement by reducing the amount of the drug required for mandatory sentencing minimums.

The bill, which drew praise from co-sponsors including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), reflects an overall move towards harsher penalties for drug distribution, including measures suggested by President Donald Trump which would impose the death sentence on convicted dealers.

All of the current co-sponsors of the bill are Republicans—in addition to Cotton and Graham, they are John Kennedy (R-Louisiana), Bill Cassidy, MD (R-Louisiana), Dean Heller (R-Nevada) and Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska)—who cited fentanyl's lethal role in the opioid crisis as a deciding factor in the bill's introduction.

"[Fentanyl] killed more than 20,000 Americans last year," said Cotton, citing statistics recorded by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "But while the epidemic has spiraled, our drug laws have been stuck in the past. This bill will make sure, when it comes to opioid distribution and trafficking, the punishment fits the crime."

According to Cotton's office, the bill would set new mandatory sentencing minimums in distribution cases. Currently, convictions involving 400 grams of a substance containing fentanyl or 100 grams of a fentanyl analogue currently carry a minimum sentence of 10 years—but under Cotton's bill, the amount would be changed to 20 grams for fentanyl and 5 grams of the analogue.

A conviction for two grams of fentanyl and 0.5 grams of fentanyl analogue would trigger a minimum sentence of five years, which currently applies to 40 grams of fentanyl and 10 grams of analogue. The bill would also grant resources to the U.S. Postal Service to halt overseas shipments of fentanyl and other opioids from entering the country. 

Graham lent his full weight to the bill, stating that "we should pass [Cotton's] bill as if lives depended on it, because they do." The former prosecutor also opined that the bill would provide a significant reduction to trafficking. "As you drive up the cost of doing business in the drug trade, less of it will occur," said Graham. "And if you want to focus on fentanyl the way Tom is focusing on it, it will get so costly that people will go to some other business. The goal is to take this very dangerous drug and make those who handle it feel like it's not worth it anymore."

Graham also noted that he would work with Cotton and others to "explore the possibility of even stronger penalties," including the death penalty, for dealers. That language is not in Cotton's bill, but it does reflect growing support for such a sentence for high-volume dealers with Trump and members of his administration.

Speaking before an audience in New Hampshire on March 19, Trump said, "If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty." Attorney General Jeff Sessions later echoed the president's declaration by stating that he would "seek the death penalty wherever possible."

Democrats and civil liberties groups have decried Trump's suggestion, calling it a throwback to earlier and unsuccessful initiatives.

"We are still paying the costs for one failed 'War on Drugs,' and now President Trump is drawing up battle plans for another," said Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts). "We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.