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Law Criminalizing Fentanyl Takes Effect In Massachusetts

As Massachusetts moves on several fronts to respond to the opioid addiction crisis, the state has closed what police and prosecutors said was a loophole in the state’s drug trafficking laws.

A new law criminalizing the trafficking of the powerful drug fentanyl goes into effect in Massachusetts Tuesday.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid estimated to be 30-50 times more potent than heroin. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey authored the legislation making trafficking in fentanyl a crime after police last year discovered it was increasingly common for drug dealers to mix fentanyl with heroin often with deadly results for unsuspecting users.

"Like so many users out there they think they are getting heroin, but they're getting something even more potent, more deadly, more lethal," said Healey.

Previously, a dealer caught with fentanyl faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, compared with 30 years for heroin. The new law puts someone caught with as little as 10 grams of fentanyl at risk of receiving a 20-year prison sentence.

" By criminalizing trafficking in fentanyl we will give police and law enforcement the tools they need to get this deadly drug off our streets and out of the hands of those suffering with addiction," said Healey.

Back in August, Healey and State Rep. John Fernandes, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee joined police and local prosecutors to lobby for the statute to criminalize the trafficking of synthetic opioids. Gov. Charlie Baker signed it into law last November.

 Fernandes said the law is in line with the approach Massachusetts has taken to combat the opioid crisis that is claiming an average of four lives per day. 

" It is consistent with where I believe we need to go, which is to make sure we make the distinction between those who need our help and those who treat this like a business without regard for the deaths that are the consequences," said Fernandes.

Speaking at the news conference where the legislation was unveiled, Catherine Fennelly of Quincy held up her son’s death certificate that stated the 21-year-old died from a fentanyl overdose.

" There is new face of addiction, it does not look like you would assume," she said. " It is our kids. It is me. It is you. It's everybody."

Massachusetts law enforcement has seen a significant increase in the presence of fentanyl in drug investigations, according to Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan.

" Fentanyl is about greed," said Sullivan.

Crime labs in Massachusetts reported over 3,300 fentanyl submissions in 2014 compared with fewer than 1,000 the year before, according to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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