Nevada Democrats scrap fentanyl bill, amend companion bill to adjust drug penalty proposal

Committee hearings and back-door discussion for the bills were animated by questions over whether the legislation starting at 4 grams would repeat ‘war on drug’ policies criminalizing low-level users

Roger Boyd, 35, holds a piece of foil containing Fentanyl while spending time on McAllister Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Calif. Friday, June 21, 2019.
Roger Boyd, 35, holds a piece of foil containing Fentanyl while spending time on McAllister Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Calif. Friday, June 21, 2019.San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images (Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag)

A bill that would enhance fentanyl penalties in Nevada did not pass after a hearing in an Assembly committee, while a companion bill was significantly amended in a last-minute shift for Nevada Democratic leadership’s plans to send fentanyl legislation to the governor’s desk.

The amended legislation starts low-level trafficking charges at 28 grams of possession for fentanyl, which was formerly proposed at 4 grams. The alteration came on Friday evening in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, hours before the deadline for most bills to pass out of their second committee.

For months, harm reduction experts and some Democrats have warned the legislation starting at 4 grams would repeat “war on drug” policies that criminalized low-level users. Those concerns animated bill hearings and back-door discussion, which were pushed by Democratic leadership but questioned by many rank-and-file Assembly members.

Fentanyl trafficking charges in Nevada currently start at 100 grams of possession, a result of a sweeping 2019 criminal justice reform law that Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo promised to walk back among his campaign pledges.

Lombardo wants to make fentanyl possession in any amount a category B felony, which is on par with trafficking penalties. Democratic leadership members, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, have indicated they have no plans to hear his landmark public safety bills. Cannizzaro sponsored the Democratic bill that did not pass.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford presented the amended fentanyl bill and answered lawmakers’ questions in two hearings. Ford’s office described the last-minute adjustments as a “compromise between the many groups with an interest in this issue” in a tweet following the hearings.

The bill promoted by Ford includes a provision giving legal protection to people seeking medical assistance for someone experiencing an overdose. The proposal also would create medication-assisted treatment programs in jails and prisons for people with substance-use disorders, if funding is available.

Fentanyl is often mixed into supplies of other drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Some users seek it out. Others don’t know they’re taking it.

Ingesting 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, while 1 gram — about the weight of a paper clip — could contain 500 lethal doses.

Imposing longer prison sentences for possessing smaller amounts of drugs represents a shift in states that in recent years have rolled back drug possession penalties. State legislatures including Oregon, West Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama have debated or passed harsher penalties for lower amounts of fentanyl.

The bill also directs a committee to study the cost of upgrading the state’s crime labs to test the amount of fentanyl in a drug mixture.

Harm reduction advocates and some lawmakers have voiced concerns about the state’s labs, which test only for the presence of fentanyl, not the exact proportion in a drug mixture.

In hearings, they said a few milligrams of fentanyl mixed into larger quantities of other drugs could cause defendants to be subject to more strict fentanyl trafficking penalties under the state’s testing protocols, regardless of whether they were aware the drugs were laced with fentanyl.

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