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“Harsher punishments for those who peddle poison:” fentanyl and the return of the Drug War playbook 

The Tired Narrative: 

Something needs to be done about those who “peddle poison on America’s streets.” Illicitly-manufactured fentanyl and its analogues are the engine of fatal overdose. These potent opioids are synthesized in industrial labs, at a fraction of the cost compared to heroin. New formulations are created to skirt federal drug laws.


Fentanyls are purposefully cut into the “heroin” supply, simultaneously increasing profits and health risk. Panic over fentanyl has spurred legislatures to embrace new, harsher penalties targeting this particular family of drugs. On the federal level, attempts were made to increase sentences and restrict access through changes to drug scheduling.

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The Informed Narrative: 

Generally, ratcheting up penalties does not result in sustained reductions in overdose deaths, overall drug use, availability, or price. Singling out a specific substance for harsh legal consequences is not an effective strategy to reduce its harms, as the disparate treatment of crack cocaine clearly demonstrated. Partly, that is because those who are targeted with prosecutions are typically at the very bottom of the drug distribution chain, where they have no control of what goes into the drug supply, nor ability to shift wholesalers for whom they distribute. More broadly, the dynamics of illicit drug trafficking have demonstrated almost total resilience to efforts to disrupt and dismantle supply chains through prosecutions of individual players, even when they are “kingpins.” 


In recent years, there has been increased recognition that penalties for drug-related crimes dating back to the 1980s and 90s have been too harsh, starting long-overdue conversations about sensible reform. Panic over fentanyl--including its supposed risk to first responders--has reversed this progress, reverting back to the Drug War playbook.  This retrograde approach isn’t just ineffective--it is also unfair because of its application: harsh drug laws are most often applied to people of color caught with small quantities, so harsher penalties for possessing or selling illicit fentanyl will likely follow historical trends of racial disparities.



Illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are currently the No. 1 driver of America’s overdose crisis. There are already laws on the books that make selling and possessing these drugs illegal, and they have not resulted in fewer overdoses or disrupted the availability of the drug. Experts continue to call for doubling down on what has been shown to reduce drug-related harms, including naloxone and syringe distribution, agonist treatments like methadone and buprenorphine, as well as supervised consumption sites. Harsher laws do not have those intended effects.


Connect with Expert Sources:

Daniel Ciccarone, physician/researcher University California San Francisco


Sheila Vakharia, Drug Policy Alliance


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