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Maine lawmaker seeks stiffer penalties for fentanyl trafficking after daughter died from overdose

AUGUSTA, MAINE -- 05/02/18 -- Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, watches a vote tally as a member of the House on May 2, 2018, at the State House in Augusta.
Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
AUGUSTA, MAINE -- 05/02/18 -- Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, watches a vote tally as a member of the House on May 2, 2018, at the State House in Augusta.

State lawmakers are considering proposals to stiffen the penalties for trafficking in fentanyl as the powerful drug continues to kill record numbers of Mainers. And a representative who recently lost his daughter is leading that push.

"We're losing two Mainers a day and we're not talking about it, folks — and we've got to do better at that,” Sen. Bradlee Farrin, R-Norridgewock, told a legislative committee on Tuesday.

Farrin fought through his emotions as he explained that, like so many people, he was "one of those folks who had his head buried in the sand" about Maine's rising opioid epidemic. But Farrin said that abruptly changed last July when his daughter Haley, a 26-year-old college grad with a good job and her own home, died of a fentanyl overdose.

Haley was one of at least 716 fatal drug overdoses in Maine last year, according to data compiled by the Maine Attorney General’s office. Since his daughter’s death, Farrin has become a vocal advocate for a multi-pronged approach to the drug crisis. As part of that effort, Farrin is asking his colleagues in the Legislature to get tougher on traffickers in fentanyl, the synthetic opioid detected in nearly 80% of those drug fatalities last year.

"Despite measures to reduce overdoses and overdose deaths, the numbers continue to increase year after year,” Farrin told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “Folks, what we are doing is not working."

Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, so even tiny amounts can be fatal. But the man-made substance is turning up in all sorts of drugs, oftentimes unbeknownst to the user. And as a result, it is driving up overdose death rates across much of the country. Drug overdose deaths in Maine continue to rise, despite substantial additional investment in treatment and more widespread availability in Maine of the overdose reversal drug naloxone or Narcan.

Fentanyl trafficking is already a felony offense in Maine but Farrin's bill would elevate it to the highest level, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. It would also create a new crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for using a cellphone or an app to traffic in fentanyl. The committee also heard public testimony on additional bills that would stiffen the penalties for trafficking in drugs that contain a mixture of substances, including fentanyl.

Farrin’s bill was supported by the Maine Sheriff's Association but was opposed by some substance use disorder counselors and recovery experts. And Michael Kebede with the ACLU of Maine said the state's punishments for drug trafficking are already harsher than in most other states. And Kebede predicted that passage of Farrin’s proposal could result in more drug users — not dealers — ending up in prison with lengthy sentences because the levels to trigger a trafficking charge are so low.

"The more a state criminalizes substances, the more it incentivizes a poisonous drug supply,” Kebede said. “Criminalizing drugs makes them more profitable and more potent. The current rise in fentanyl-related deaths can be directly tied to punishing possession and sale of heroin more harshly than other drugs."

Farrin acknowledges that law enforcement is only one part of the potential pathway out of the current crisis, so he is sponsoring bills to expand access to treatment, recovery services and drug prevention. Kebede applauded Farrin's focus on those measures and encouraged lawmakers to put more resources into a robust public health response to drug use.