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As Fentanyl Fatalities Rise, N.H. Lawmakers Eye Stricter Criminal Penalties


A special task force on the state's opioid crisis has given the initial stamp of approval to a bill that would impose stricter criminal penalties for the distribution of fentanyl.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeb Bradley, the bill specifically targets people who manufacture the potent painkiller, which was linked to more overdose deaths in the Granite State last year than heroin.

“It’s not for one possessing the drug, it’s for one selling the drug, is the simplest way to see this,” Assistant Attorney General James Vara told lawmakers at Wednesday's meeting of the task force.

Fentanyl is relatively easy to make and much more powerful than other opioids - up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and 10 to 30 times stronger than the heroin typically sold on the street, according to State Forensic Lab Director Tim Pifer.
The drug was involved in 145 fatal overdoses in 2014, and has had a role in more than half of the nearly 300 drug deaths recorded this year.

As a pharmaceutical, fentanyl is prescribed in lozenges or transdermal patches to manage severe chronic and post-surgical pain. It's a Schedule II drug regulated by the federal government, as well as under New Hampshire's Controlled Drug Act.

The so-called analog of fentanyl that is turning up mixed with or sold as heroin in New Hampshire is manufactured in labs in the U.S. and Mexico. Like heroin, it's currently classified as a Schedule I drug, and according to the Drug Enforcement Administration has "no commonly accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” 

“Essentially, it is a granular of salt — in terms of the amount of fentanyl — and then cut with glucose, traditionally, and then being sold as heroin,” Vara said. “Someone who is an opiate-naïve user will use the same amount they’ve been using as heroin, or someone who is a traditional heroin user will use that. What we have been seeing is that they’ll use that — they’re shooting it up, injecting it with the needle, and they’re dying.”

Even state officials tasked with analyzing the substances seized by law enforcement have a tough time parsing out whether a substance contains fentanyl without special chemical testing. Pifer said someone was recently arrested in Nashua for selling 30 tablets labeled as oxycodone. When analyzed, Pifer said, the pills were found to contain both heroin and fentanyl.

“Sometimes, the individuals who are selling this, they wouldn’t even know what they’re selling,” Pifer said.

Over the past few years, fentanyl has turned up in a growing number of samples sent to Pifer's lab for analysis. It accounted for 10 percent of the drug samples analyzed in 2015, up from 1 percent of drug in 2013. 

Bradley's proposal would bring the penalty for fentanyl distribution in line with that of heroin under state law, but some lawmakers suggested that might not be enough. Bradley acknowledged that tougher penalties might be worth pursuing, but said he wants to take it one step at a time.

“What I would argue is that we need to make sure we take at least at a minimum this step to make fentanyl the same penalty as heroin," he said. "If there is to be enhanced penalties, I think that is the subject of further legislation. At least for early consideration and early adoption, we should get this piece accomplished as soon as possible.”

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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