Florida looks to strengthen laws on counterfeit opioids

House Representatives in the US state of Florida have unanimously passed a bill to introduce tougher laws, including murder charges, in a bid to crack down on the deadly counterfeit opioid crisis sweeping America.

The move follows a raft of overdoses and deaths linked to the use of counterfeit prescription drugs – namely painkillers and anti-anxiety meds – laced with the potent opioid fentanyl.

According to the bill, which was passed by the Florida House of Representatives and is expected to pass the Florida Senate, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, such as carfentanil, will be added to Florida's drug trafficking statute as schedule I controlled substances, resulting in stricter punishment for dealers, including first degree murder charges in the case of an overdose death.

The new legislation would put the "worst of the worst behind bars", bill sponsor Jim Boyd said. "We want to send a clear message to drug dealers in Florida, and that is that the Florida House is standing strong and we will not tolerate the way you prey on the weak."

Attorney General Pam Bondi claimed the bill would help Florida "combat this deadly crisis". "Taking fentanyl just one time can kill – and that is why I want to thank each member of the Florida House for voting to give prosecutors the tools to seek stronger sentences against traffickers selling fentanyl and other deadly drugs in our state."

The bill puts fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and other synthetic opioids in the same category as heroin, with possession of four grams or more now becoming a felony resulting in mandatory-minimum prison time. Culprits could face as many as 25 years behind bars for possession, along with a fine between $50,000 and $500,000, and a first-degree murder charge if a drug user dies.

Critics of the bill, however, have claimed that pain patients who seek meds from the black market may get caught up in the legislation if they happen to purchase fentanyl-adulterated painkillers unknowingly.

Fentanyl, which is licenced to treat sever pain, has been increasingly found in other drugs including Xanax and oxycodone, and has been blamed for intensifying the prescription drug epidemic, which is already a problem in the US. Dealers have also been adding the synthetic opioids to heroin.

With opioid prescriptions harder to obtain, and demand for the drugs increasing, counterfeiters have moved to adulterating pain and anti-anxiety pills with the synthetic opioids, which are highly addictive. "Motivated by enormous profit potential, traffickers are exploiting high consumer demand for prescription medications by producing inexpensive, fraudulent prescription pills containing fentanyl," the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a report last year.

As little as two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal.

Florida has felt the effects of the crisis, where over a six-month period last year, 53 people died from carfentanil just in one county alone. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, fentanyl-related deaths increased by 115 per cent between 2013 and 2014.

Besides the bill, the state has been also exploring other ways to reduce the incidence of the counterfeit prescription drugs, many of which are manufactured in China.

Florida's Governor Rick Scott recently pushed for a series of workshops in the most affected counties, and an agreement with pharmaceutical companies will see an emergency spray for overdoses reduced in price. The state is also looking to work with countries, such as China, where the drugs are being manufactured and imported from, and will also seek to improve public education about the drugs.

Meanwhile, another bill was recently passed by Florida's House, which imposes new restrictions on the prescription of painkillers where pharmacies would have to report to a state database on a daily basis, instead of weekly, on the dispensing of a controlled substance.

More broadly, the US is looking to tackle the issue and a number of states have moved to ban the synthetic opioids, while a new bill – the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act – was recently introduced which would aim to make it harder for shipments of fentanyl and the like being imported into the US.

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