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Are harsher fentanyl sentences the solution to the opiate crisis? Experts say no

Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Rob De Maria says he recently lost a friend to an overdose.

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It's a cold winter night in Paterson, New Jersey. There's still snow on the ground from yesterday's storm, and on a corner, under the neon lights of a liquor store, a group of people are gathered. Some are homeless, many are opioid users, and most have had brushes with death. "I just lost a good friend of mine right now. It hurts", says Rob De Maria. A boyish young man, dimples and dark undereye circles, he says he lived out here for two years while addicted to opiates. He's now tapering off, he says it got too scary for him. In part, because of fentanyl, the potent, cheap synthetic opiate that street drugs in the US are being cut with. "It's killing people, left to right. Every day people dropping. Every time they get high I'm pretty sure it's in the back of their heads. That's why they don't get high alone."

Over 110 thousand people died of drug overdoses last year in America, according to the CDC. Behind the deadly wave, is fentanyl, a cheap and powerful synthetic opiate that is often mixed with street drugs. The rise in overdoses is happening across the country. In Virginia, overdoses are now the leading cause of unnatural death. In Los Angeles last year, fentanyl was believed to be behind a wave of teenage deaths.

In response, cities and states have been pushing for much harsher sentencing. Here in New Jersey one new bill would make manufacturing and distributing 5 grams a first degree crime. But advocates say, that's a small enough amount to land people who are using in jail, rather than get them the help they need.

At a tense New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee meetingrecently, Republican Senator Mike Testa pushed back on that accusation. "The premise that you are operating under, that we are incarcerating drug users, is absolutely, patently false. This bill is solely designed to punish people who are engaged in the sale for profit of drugs that are killing New Jerseyans."

Bre Azanedo, a program manager with Black Lives Matters Paterson, disagrees. "What's going to happen is there's going to be a lot of black and brown people in jail. Azanedo works with a team that does harm reduction: she delivers food, clothing, safe using supplies and Naloxone, for overdoses.

Most people pick up their pace or pretend not to notice when they walk passed this corner liquor store where people gather. But Azanedo moves with ease in this world, in part, because she's been here before. Since she was a child.

Her father was a drug user, right here in Paterson

"He was the best dad I could've asked for" she clarifies. Picked me up from Sweet 16's with my friends, would stop on streets, would stop at the chicken store, would stop on Broadway and just be like, 'Oh I just gotta go see someone real quick.' Now I know what he was doing."

When she was 18 , he went to prison . She became the head of household. "Prison may have saved him in the sense that he became sober, but it destroyed us as a family. I was an adult overnight." It was then that she started venturing out to the sites where she knew people were using. The train tracks. Behind an abandoned building. The pharmacy parking lot. Someone needed to make sure those people were ok. "I wanted to be the person that I wished my Dad had."

Azanedo recently testified against the New Jersey legislature's push to punish fentanyl more harshly. She says going after such a small amount, will target small time drug users. It's a repeat of the War On Drugs, which in the 80's and 90's, filled jails and prisons with a disproportionate amount of Black and Brown people - and is considered by most, a failure. The US still has a drug problem.

As we walk, she points at a disheveled woman wrapped in a blanket, walking up and down the snowy avenue. Azanedo says that woman probably has fentanyl on her. "Does this look like someone who needs to go to prison", she asks me "or that needs help?"

Azanedo says she worries that steeper sentencing will push people further under ground, and make folks afraid to call 9-1-1 in case of emergency.

Most experts agree that further criminalization is not going to fix America's drug problem. "There's no doubt in my mind that law enforcement should be involved", says Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor of public policy at Jon Jay College of Criminal Justice. "There's no doubt in my mind that the court system should be involved. But we cannot law enforcement our way out of this fentanyl epidemic. It's a public health epidemic. We need to concentrate and focus on public health solutions in order to help people break their habits, break their addictions

Virginia Krieger, one of the co-founders of the support group Lost Voices Of Fentanyl. She agrees with experts who say incarceration is not the answer to helping addicts. She should know, her own life has been derailed by addiction. Back in 2015, her daughter Tiffany overdosed on a pill she says she took for back pain. She was told it was percocet, but it had fentanyl.

Griefstricken, by the loss, her son, spiralled into a meth addiction. Krieger does not believe in punishing people into sobriety, but she says it's complicated. "Right now my son is out there somewhere. I don't know if he's alive, or dead. And he has almost died three times from fentanyl in meth. I would rather see my son in a jail cell, than dead."

She's tired of the politics that gets in the way of an effective drug policy in America. She's exhausted from getting roped into debates about immigration, incarceration. Her priority, is to go after the big drug traffickers pumping Fentanyl over the US-Mexico border. "This isn't a war on drugs. This is a war on fentanyl. If we can get that out of the drug supply, then we can get back to what we know: take care of people. "

People caught up in an epidemic, that has killed over a hundred thousand just in the last year.

"That's more than we lost during the 20-year Vietnam war. That should be an alarm. I don't know why the alarm isn't sounding."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.