WASHINGTON – This week we learned a tragic record was broken: more than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses over the 12-month period ending in April 2021, which covers the majority of 2020. The heartbreaking numbers aren’t news to public health officials and first responders nationwide, even as they’ve revived a political debate you likely never saw on your TV: Even after the U.S. government — under former President Donald Trump — took steps to unwind mandatory minimum drug sentences, should America extend those set, though critics say ‘rigid,’ sentences to fentanyl dealers?
The answer is dividing Democrats — well, at the very least, it’s another drug issue revealing a gulf between 78-year-old President Joe Biden and the direction the majority of Democrats have taken the party of late.
Earlier this fall, the Biden administration asked Congress to extend mandatory minimum sentences to fentanyl dealers.
“By acting on these recommendations, Congress can take decisive action against the fastest growing driver of overdoses in the country, while protecting civil rights and encouraging scientific research,” Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy Regina LaBelle said this September when the Biden administration announced its new proposal.
After the record-breaking overdose numbers came out this week, President Biden doubled down on the tough-on-crime-era he helped usher in as a U.S. senator 36 years ago.
“We are strengthening prevention, promoting harm reduction, expanding treatment, and supporting people in recovery, as well as reducing the supply of harmful substances in our communities,” Biden’s statement read. “And we won’t let up.”
That’s not what some Democrats on Capitol Hill are saying.
“We owe an apology to an entire generation of African American men in our country — a couple of million went to prison,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told The News Station at the Capitol earlier this year. “We just don’t want to repeat the same trajectory. We have to be wiser this time and also make sure that we’re funding the programs that we know work to avoid the use of this – of these drugs in our society.”
Markey spent seven years working on the bipartisan congressional effort to unwind mandatory minimums at the federal level for substances like marijuana and crack. The effort was targeted at non-violent drug felons and is the one Trump signed into law three years ago.
This week’s record-shattering numbers on overdose deaths are surely alarming, but fentanyl deaths have become almost normalized to many Americans.
Just last week, the Department of Justice announced a plea deal with the guys who sold rapper Mac Miller the fentanyl-laced pain pills he overdosed on in 2018. In 2017, Tom Petty and rapper Lil Peep also succumbed to fentanyl cocktails, while in 2016 the world lost Prince to a fentanyl overdose.
Last year also witnessed federal public health officials announcing a new peak in overdoses when they reported a then-record of 71,000 deaths from back in 2019.
Same policies, same outcome, according to Markey. The senator saw his measure focused on interdicting drugs as they cross U.S. borders included in 2018’s First Step Act, but he says punishment alone isn’t the answer for fentanyl.
“Treatment has to be a big part of this process,” Markey said. “We are dramatically underfunding treatment in our country, so that we can get people the help which they need with their mental health issues and any underlying vulnerabilities they might have to these synthetic substances.”
This spring, Markey was a part of a letter to President Biden asking him to disregard the Trump administration’s proposed Schedule 1 designation — and the mandatory minimums they entail — for fentanyl. The letter was co-signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Sheldon Whitehosue (D-RI).
In the end, Biden followed former President Trump’s lead, as his administration piggy-backed on Trump’s proposal this fall with its own permanent designation.
“We are deeply distressed advocates for the permanent classwide scheduling of FRS by continuing to rely on outdated, failed tactics all while failing to provide any evidence-based solutions rooted in harm reduction and treatment,” reads a letter to President Biden last month signed by more than 100 organizations. “Any solution to the overdose epidemic must center on public health solutions.”
Signatures included The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, etc.
Still, Biden continued — and now continues — with his War on Drugs-style approach to the opioid epidemic. That puts Biden more in line with Republicans on Capitol Hill than with members of his own party on yet another issue.
“It’s a killer,” Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) told The News Station at the Capitol. “Fentanyl’s a killer, you know, so I would think mandatory minimums would serve that well, to stop it, dry that up.”
Still, this isn’t a knee-jerk, partisan issue any longer. So while most lawmakers embrace the tough-on-fentanyl approach on first blush, this is a new era on Capitol Hill. So many lawmakers, contrary to their pedigree, have more questions than rhetoric surrounding this issue these days.
“Listen, fentanyl is killing our kids in stunning numbers, and so we just got to keep that in mind,” Rep. John Katko (R-NY) told The News Station. “I don’t think watering down the penalties in general is a good idea, but mandatory minimums is a different animal.”
And in the Democratic Party’s remaining moderate ranks, rank-in-file members remain torn between Biden and overhauling America’s record-shattering criminal justice system.
“Certainly, given how deadly fentanyl is — and, you know, separate users from dealers and suppliers, right?” Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) told The News Station at the Capitol. “It’s different than marijuana.”
Still, Bera and other moderate Democrats remain torn on how to combat this deadly scourge.
“We saw the detrimental effect of mandatory minimums in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think we want to meet each case on the merits,” Bera said. “Fentanyl is not the same as cocaine or crack cocaine and in that sense as marijuana, and again, you just have to try to meet the crime where it is, and dealers and suppliers are different than the end user.”
Still, for more progressive Democrats, including Sen. Markey of Massachuettes, the biggest concern remains Black and white.
“I don’t want to be revisiting what we did in the 1990s,” Markey told The News Station, “in terms of incarcerating large numbers of Black and Brown individuals.”