The Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday advanced two bills that take vastly different approaches toward addressing Florida's overdose crisis.
One bill, filed by Sen. Tina Polsky (D-Boca Raton), would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, a tool that’s generally effective at detecting the presence of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — in drugs. The strips are easy to use, cost-effective and can save lives.
But, under current law, they’re considered illegal to have, purchase or distribute in Florida, along with at least a dozen or so other states across the country.
The other bill filed by Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary), takes a more tough-on-crime approach. Brodeur's Senate Bill 280, similar to one that died in its first committee in 2021, would enhance criminal penalties for adults who dispense, deliver or sell fentanyl — a synthetic opioid — fentanyl analogs or heroin that results in injury or overdose, regardless of whether or not that overdose is fatal.
Currently, Brodeur said that “nothing” happens to a person who illegally provides fentanyl to someone who overdoses and lives — disregarding charges that could be made on account of illegal drug possession or drug distribution.
Brodeur’s bill would also allow prosecutors to pursue a first-degree murder charge for adults who give fentanyl (but not prescription opioids, heroin, or other drugs like cocaine or meth) to someone who consequently suffers a fatal fentanyl-involved overdose.
This could include, but is not limited to a friend, partner or anyone who gives someone fentanyl that leads to fatal overdose, regardless of that person’s intention.
This matter of intent was a subject of debate among lawmakers. “What if it wasn’t intentional?” Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), asked. One of the most insidious aspects of the current overdose crisis is illicitly-manufactured fentanyl’s deadly presence in the illicit drug supply.
It’s being found in everything from counterfeit pills, to cocaine, meth and even marijuana, often unbeknownst to the person who uses it — but also, sometimes those who purchase it for themselves or others, as well.
According to data from the state, fentanyl-related deaths in Florida have increased 790% since 2015. In 2021, the drug was involved in 6, 417 deaths in Florida, according to the state’s Medical Examiner’s Commission, and about two-thirds of the 107,000 drug overdose deaths that occurred nationwide.
These deaths often involve at least one other drug, such as pills, alcohol or illicit stimulants. Brodeur himself presented data demonstrating that between 83% to 95% of all fentanyl-related deaths in Florida also involve another drug.
“So even if you think you're just buying a joint from somebody off a college campus, you should assume that when you hand it over to my kid, if they end up dying because there was something in it, you're going down?” asked Sen. Jason Pizzo.
“That’s correct,” Brodeur replied.
But the Republican senator emphasized that an amendment he filed to the bill prior to the Tuesday meeting contains language that’d direct prosecutors not to go after everyday folks who unknowingly give someone synthetic opioids that lead to overdose.
“We’re not trying to go after the boyfriend who gave the girlfriend a drug and there was an accident,” said Brodeur. “We're trying to go up the chain,” he added, saying that if there was a more “artful” way to articulate that in the bill’s language, he’s all ears.
Various State's Attorney offices and Sheriff's offices throughout the state waived in support of the bill, while groups like the ACLU, Florida Rising, and the Florida Public Defenders Association opposed.
Jonathan Webber, Florida policy director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, told lawmakers the bill would insufficiently address the crisis at hand, and could worsen the cycle of addiction and incarceration: “SB 280 makes this problem worse by over-empowering a system that, at its best, has failed to reduce the underlying problem of drug addiction, and at its worst, has exacerbated this vicious cycle of addiction, relapse, and poverty, especially in Black and Hispanic communities."
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the bill in a 6–2 vote, with Democratic senators Tina Polsky and Bobby Powell voting against it. Democratic Sen. Pizzo, who had concerns about the bill language as is, nonetheless voted in favor.
'This bill could save lives'
Meanwhile, Polsky’s bill to decriminalize fentanyl test strips, by removing fentanyl testing equipment from Florida's legal definition of illegal "drug paraphernalia," passed unanimously.
Last year, a similar bill also advanced through the state legislature, but was blocked by Florida's GOP-controlled legislature at the last minute. And the impact of that wasn’t lost on senators Tuesday.
“There would be people alive today that have died, not having this or being in possession of this if this has passed last year,” said Sen. Pizzo, who last year urged lawmakers to revisit a proposal to decriminalize fentanyl test strips in the future.
While Brodeur’s bill focuses on criminalizing drug distribution and possession that, understandably, can devastate the lives of families affected by the loss of a loved one to fentanyl overdose, Polsky’s bill takes a harm reduction approach that empowers those who use drugs to make an educated decision about what they’re putting into their body.
The use of fentanyl test strips as an overdose prevention strategy is endorsed by the Biden administration, as well as various agencies within the federal government, such as the CDC. But it's not just supported by Democrats.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for instance, a Republican who previously opposed test strip decriminalization, reversed course late last year, saying he supported the idea. And a growing number of states have made the move to decriminalization.
“He’s not just a statistic,” said Mary Beth McCreighton, a mother of a son who fatally overdosed on fentanyl in West Palm Beach last year. “He is the face of the tens of thousands dying in this country every year.”tweet this
Mary Beth Creighton, who lost a 31-year-old son to fentanyl overdose in West Palm Beach last year, testified in support of the bill. “This bill could save lives as soon as it’s approved,” she said.
Creighton said her son Zachary, a former auto mechanic and “very talented appliance technician” with an associate's degree, was first introduced to “oxys” (a common street name for prescription opioids) after a severe snowboarding injury and became addicted.
“He did live over four and a half years of beautiful recovery here in Florida, but unfortunately slipped, and his death was ruled due to a lethal dose of fentanyl,” she said.
“He’s not just a statistic,” McCreighton added. “He is the face of the tens of thousands dying in this country every year.”
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