GOP senators push tougher sentencing for synthetic opioid

GOP senators push tougher sentencing for synthetic opioid
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A group of Republicans wants to bolster mandatory minimum sentencing for trafficking fentanyl, a move that comes as President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE advocates for harsher punishments for drug traffickers.

Fentanyl is “as much a weapon of mass destruction as it is a drug,” Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senator says Iran needs to 'stop acting like an outlaw' Sen. Tom Cotton: 'Memorial Day is our most sacred holiday' The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (R-Ark.) said at a Thursday press conference, holding up a nearly empty salt shaker and explaining how that amount — less than 40 grams — of fentanyl could kill thousands of people.

Federal mandatory minimums for fentanyl kick in after trafficking 40 grams or more.

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“That’s why mandatory minimum sentences are so important and our sentences for fentanyl are so inadequate,” he said later.

The bill, which will be introduced Thursday, would reduce the amount of fentanyl required for mandatory minimum sentences to apply. The effort, senators said, is aimed at taking into account the synthetic drug’s potency — which is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

“The punishment in terms of trafficking in fentanyl is so disproportionate to the effect,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump declassification move unnerves Democrats Climate change is a GOP issue, too New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE (R-S.C.) said, “and I want to make sure judges can look the defendant in the eye and say, ‘You're going to jail for a long time based on what you possess.’”

Mandatory minimums require judges to sentence someone convicted of a drug crime to a minimum length of time. They’ve received push back from some criminal justice advocates who say the laws are outdated.

Graham said that he’d like to see relief from some mandatory minimums, which “probably overreached,” but “at the same time, take Sen. Cotton’s lead and come down like a hammer on this concentrated drug of death."

Louisiana Republican Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyBipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package Senate passes bill to undo tax increase on Gold Star military families Overnight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — House passes drug pricing bills amid ObamaCare row | Senate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law | Ocasio-Cortez confronts CEO over K drug price tag MORE and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE, along with Rep. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedHere are the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats on the Equality Act House approves anti-LGBT discrimination Equality Act Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill MORE (R-N.Y.), joined Graham and Cotton in supporting the legislation at a press conference Thursday.

Graham also plans to chair a Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing next month to examine the appropriate response to the opioid epidemic, including exploring the death penalty for fentanyl traffickers if a death occurs.

“I look forward to working with [Graham] on federal legislation that will make it easier for federal prosecutors to use the federal felony murder rules to seek the the death penalty for these kind of drug traffickers,” Cotton said.

Lawmakers and the administration are working to combat the opioid epidemic, which has seen no signs of slowing down. Overdoses involving synthetic opioids, which includes fentanyl, more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest statistics.

President Trump included a mandate to the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty for some drug traffickers when appropriate under current law in his three-pronged plan to combat the opioid epidemic unveiled Monday. The move is controversial among human rights and criminal justice advocates, who encourage moving away from a war-on-drugs approach they say hasn’t worked in the past.