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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill would raise penalties for fentanyl distribution

Fentanyl pills stamped to look like legitimate prescription drugs.
Fentanyl pills stamped to look like legitimate prescription drugs.

HELENA -- A bill introduced to the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday would raise the penalties for fentanyl distribution in Montana to anywhere from two to 40 years in prison, and a $50,000 fine or both.

Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, is the sponsor of the House Bill 791 and said it is designed to punish those distributing fentanyl across the state, not those struggling with substance abuse issues.

“I think it's pretty safe to say that we have an issue and it's not just affecting those who choose to use fentanyl. The magnitude of this drug hit me last spring when I learned that our law enforcement officers now carry Narcan due to their risk of over -- of overdose,” Sprunger said.

She said she worked closely with the Department of Justice to draft the bill and only those caught with at least 100 pills containing fentanyl or 40 grams of the drug in other forms can be arrested under the bill.

There were five proponents of the bill, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

“We are absolutely being overrun by fentanyl in Montana. It is nothing short of meteoric to see the rise in fentanyl in Montana. In less than two years, fentanyl has gone from being something that we very rarely dealt with to being almost caught up now to our number one drug, which is methamphetamine,” Knudsen said.

There were two opponents of the bill. Maggie Bornstein represented the ACLU of Montana. She said the minimum penalty of two years in prison was too strict and could lead to a rise in incarceration.

“It's harsh to levy a mandatory minimum. We don't think that incarceration is going to deter drug use,” Bornstein said.

According to a report released by the Department of Justice four days ago, illegal fentanyl seizures in Montana have increased 11,000% since 2019. The Department of Justice estimated that fentanyl-linked overdose deaths have increased 51% since 2021, however the state crime lab can only confirm a death was caused by fentanyl-linked overdose if an autopsy is conducted. The total number of people who have died from fentanyl overdose in Montana is unknown, but the state crime lab has been able to confirm 74 deaths caused by fentanyl in 2022.

According to the DEA, fentanyl is roughly 100 times stronger than morphine. Although a lethal dose of fentanyl depends on weight and tolerance, it’s estimated that one kilogram of fentanyl is enough to kill around 500,000 people.

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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