By Zac Anderson
Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Wednesday a bill pushed by two Southwest Florida lawmakers that cracks down on fentanyl abuse.
The legislation, HB 477, sponsored by Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, establishes mandatory minimum sentences for possession of certain amounts of fentanyl -- a powerful synthetic opioid -- and its many derivatives.
The legislation establishes mandatory minimum sentences of at least three years in jail for possession of between four and 14 grams of fentanyl or its derivatives, at least 15 years for possession of between 14 and 28 grams and at least 25 years for possession of more than 28 grams.
The mandatory minimum sentences have been controversial, with the Senate originally voting to strip them from the bill. But they were added back in after lobbying from Attorney General Pam Bondi and others, and the bill narrowly cleared the Senate 20-18.
"The heroin and fentanyl epidemic is destroying lives and families," Boyd said. "I am grateful the governor signed this bill that sends notice to the dealers of this poison that when caught they will go to jail. We will not stop until we find and prosecute you to the fullest extent of this law."
Criminal justice reform advocates say mandatory minimums do not offer judges enough flexibility and can result in overly harsh sentences. But supporters of the legislation argue they are needed because fentanyl is such a dangerous drug.
Often mixed with heroin, fentanyl can be extremely deadly. Overdose deaths related to the drug have spiked in Florida in recent years, with Southwest Florida a particular hot spot.
Manatee and Sarasota counties were the top two communities in the state for fentanyl-caused deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. The drug killed 111 people that year in the medical examiner's district that includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
Fentanyl caused 705 deaths across Florida in 2015 and was found in the system of another 206 overdose victims who died. The drug continues to present a major health crisis, with the number of deaths increasing in the first half of 2016.
Scott noted that he signed an executive order last month declaring a public health emergency in the state, allowing Florida access to more than $27 million in federal funding from the Health and Human Services Opioid State Targeted Response Grant.
"I'm proud to sign this important piece of legislation today to help fight this national epidemic which has taken the lives of too many Floridians," Scott said, thanking Boyd, Steube and Bondi for their work on the bill. "This legislation provides tools for law enforcement and first responders to save lives."
In a news release from Scott, Bondi called the legislation her top priority in this spring's legislative session "because it gives law enforcement and prosecutors the tools we need to combat the trafficking of fentanyl and save lives."
Steube said, "For too many years, the opioid epidemic has devastated families across the state and this legislation is a major step in our battle against this deadly epidemic."
(c)2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.