Gov. Charlie Baker appeared at the Haverhill Police Station Tuesday to lobby for changes to the state’s fentanyl trafficking statute to stem the flow of the lethal drug into Massachusetts and give prosecutors the tools to put traffickers behind bars. (WHAV News photograph.)
Gov. Charlie Baker joined Haverhill Police Chief Alan R. DeNaro and other officials, at the Haverhill Police Department Tuesday afternoon, to speak about the growing opioid crisis and ask for stronger legislation.
“In 2014, fentanyl was present in 30 percent of overdose deaths,” Baker said, “… in 2017, fentanyl was present in 80 percent of overdose deaths.”
DeNaro said police have responded to 514 overdose calls in the last 27 months, 53 of which were fatal. “The impact on our community cannot be overstated,” he said.
Baker is working to pass legislation that would give lawmakers more authority in prosecuting fentanyl traffickers with a bill presented to the legislature last fall. “The House and the Senate agree that this fentanyl issue needs to be addressed,” he said, “and it needs to be addressed with some urgency.”
In 2015 – amid a rising tide of overdose deaths – the legislature established for the first time a new offense of Trafficking in Fentanyl. While the new law’s language mostly mirrored an existing provision to target large-scale sellers of heroin, the phrasing inadvertently put a greater burden on law enforcement than necessary, according to the governor’s office. Where the existing law for heroin trafficking provision forbade the sale of more than 18 grams of heroin “or any mixture containing heroin,” the new fentanyl trafficking section forbade the sale of more than 10 grams of fentanyl, or “any mixture containing more than 10 grams of fentanyl.”
Under current law, a heroin dealer who sells 90 grams of 10 percent heroin is guilty under the heroin trafficking law because he sells a “mixture containing heroin” with a weight of more than 18 grams. But a fentanyl dealer who sells 90 grams of 10 percent fentanyl sells a mixture “containing” only 9 grams of pure fentanyl—making him ineligible for a trafficking charge—even though what he is selling is a much more concentrated and lethal mixture.
Currently, prosecutors must use an outside lab to detect not just the presence of fentanyl in seized drugs, but its precise concentration, a statement said. Most drug dealers who sell controlled substances like heroin, cocaine or fentanyl are selling a controlled substance mixed with other substances, a process often referred to as “cutting” or “stepping on” the drug.
“The law as it currently stands is ineffective,” said Essex County District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett. “Without the ability to test the purity of the substance, we simply cannot meet our burden of proof. As a result, we are forced to treat traffickers like low-level dealers, charging them with possession with intent to distribute. This simply makes no sense in the middle of a public health emergency.”
“The enhancements proposed by Governor Baker will provide Massachusetts law enforcement with a valuable tool designed to remove these dangerous drugs and the individuals who sell them from our communities,” said Haverhill Police Chief Alan DeNaro. “Our legislators must always be ready to assess and modify our criminal statutes whenever science or technology impacts our ability to keep the citizens of the commonwealth safe.”
Baker was asked to respond to President Trump’s New Hampshire speech from a day earlier in which he cited Lawrence as a major source of New Hampshire’s illegal drug supply. Baker said that he is pleased with the president’s proposals regarding the opioid crisis but believes that the problem is not restricted to one city or state, saying that if you take any 20 people in the country, one of them will have been affected by this epidemic.
Baker also said that four out of five current heroin users became addicted to drugs after being legally prescribed opioids by a medical professional.