Virginia lawmakers did not agree on many topics over the course of their legislative session that came to an end on Saturday, except for one of the bills they did pass related to fentanyl, and whether to use tougher language and impose harsher penalties in cases involving the drug.
Under a bill passed by the state Senate and House of Delegates, “any mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl” would officially be called a “weapon of terrorism” in Virginia.
The bill would also increase potential prison time for people who sell it.
Anyone who “knowingly and intentionally manufactures or distributes” fentanyl would be guilty of a Class 4 felony, which carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.
That would be in addition to the current penalty for manufacturing or selling fentanyl, which is punishable by five to 40 years in prison.
“I’m tired of seeing people die,” said Republican state Sen. Bryce Reeves, a lawmaker who pushed for the bill. “Until we take a bold step and start going after these folks, it’s going to keep killing our kids.”
Reeves said it has personally affected him, as his daughter’s boyfriend died of a fentanyl overdose.
“This has affected more families than you’ll ever imagine,” Reeves said.
One of the benefits of the bill, Reeves claimed, would be to send a message to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that Virginia would be cracking down on fentanyl.
“I think there probably will be a lot more assets available to us from a task force perspective once we start going forward on this,” Reeves said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, fentanyl caused or contributed to deaths in 76.4% of overdoses in the state in 2021, when overdoses killed nearly 2,700 Virginians.
Nationwide fatal overdoses began steadily climbing in the 1990s, driven by opioid painkillers, followed by waves of deaths led by other opioids, such as heroin and — most recently — illicit fentanyl.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is commonly mixed with drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, or made into pills that resemble other prescription opioids.
In 2021, more than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses — the highest tally in U.S. history.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released provisional data on what happened through the first six months of 2022, indicating that overdose deaths may have slowed down a bit.
The CDC estimated there were about 107,600 overdose deaths for the 12-month period between July 2021 and June 2022 — only 40 fewer than in the 2021 calendar year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.