Sen. Kelly Ayotte's effort to boost penalties for drug trafficking — as an opioid epidemic ravages her home state — is drawing the ire of some criminal justice advocates.
The New Hampshire Republican is trying to use a sweeping defense bill to take aim at fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug that is often used in pain killers. The drug also can be mixed with heroin to amplify its effects.
Fentanyl was linked to the death of the musician Prince this week by a medical examiner, who ruled that he died of an accidental overdose.
Ayotte's amendment , which is similar to a bill she offered last year, would lower the amount of illicit drugs that would trigger mandatory sentences for manufacturing, distributing or possession with the intent to distribute.
For example, current law states someone with 40 grams of a mixture or substance containing fentanyl would trigger a five-year mandatory sentence. Ayotte wants to change that threshold from 40 to 2 grams.
She is seeking to attach her amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate is set to consider next week.
“Though the DEA estimates that fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, the penalties for trafficking in the two drugs are significantly different," said Chloe Rockow, Ayotte's spokeswoman. "With support from New Hampshire law enforcement, Senator Ayotte introduced legislation — and this amendment — to ensure that the penalty for trafficking in fentanyl reflects the deadliness of that substance."
But some advocates of reducing mandatory minimum sentences are crying foul. They warn that drug users, as well as traffickers, could be subject to the penalties with the dramatically lowered thresholds.
"Prosecutors will often use these trafficking charges against users," said Michael Collins, Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He said there is no doubt in his mind that more drug users would be unfairly prosecuted if the amendment goes forward.
Collins said a coalition of groups that want to reduce mandatory minimum sentences will rally against the Ayotte amendment.
Jason Pye of the conservative group FreedomWorks recently wrote in a blog post that the Ayotte amendment "would result in the incarceration of drug addicts in federal prison, leading to a higher prison population and associated costs to taxpayers."
The name of the bill, the "Stop Trafficking in Fentanyl Act" suggests another target: traffickers, not users.
Ayotte "knows that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem," said Rockow, her spokeswoman. She said that Ayotte has been a strong advocate for a comprehensive approach "that includes resources for prevention, treatment, and education."
Ayotte's home state has been particularly hard hit by an opioid epidemic. New Hampshire experienced a 73 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2013 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and Prevention.
Opponents of her amendment say that revising sentencing guidelines is not the way to combat the epidemic. The focus, they say, should be on treatment instead.
Ayotte actively supported a comprehensive bill focusing on the opioid crisis that the Senate passed in March.
She is in a tight re-election race this November. Collins suggested that could be her motivation for what he characterized as a harsh approach to the crisis.