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Are harsher fentanyl sentences the solution to the opiate crisis? Experts say no

Rob De Maria says he recently lost a friend to an overdose.
Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Rob De Maria says he recently lost a friend to an overdose.

Updated March 14, 2023 at 9:23 PM ET

It's a cold winter night in Patterson, New Jersey. There's still snow on the ground from the latest storm, and on a corner, under the neon lights of a liquor store, a group of people are gathered.

Some are homeless, many are opioid users, and most have had brushes with death.

"I just lost a good friend of mine right now. It hurts," says Rob De Maria. He is a boyish young man, with dimples and dark circles under his eyes. De Maria says he lived out here for two years while addicted to opiates. He's now tapering off, he says, because it got too scary for him.

Too scary, in part, because of fentanyl. "It's killing people, left to right," he says. "Every day people dropping. Every time they get high, I'm pretty sure (the threat of death) it's in the back of their heads. That's why they don't get high alone."

Over 110,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in America, according to the CDC. Behind the deadly wave is fentanyl, a cheap and powerful synthetic opiate that is often mixed with street drugs. The rise in overdoses is happening across the country. In Virginia, overdoses are now the leading cause of unnatural death. In Los Angeles last year, fentanyl was believed to be behind awave of teenage deaths.

In response, cities and states have been pushing for much harsher sentencing. Here in New Jersey, one new bill would make manufacturing and distributing 5 grams a first degree crime. But advocates say, that's a small enough amount to land people who are using in jail, rather than get them the help they need.

At a tense New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee meetingrecently, Republican State Sen. Mike Testa pushed back on that accusation.

"The premise that you are operating under, that we are incarcerating drug users, is absolutely, patently false," he said. "This bill is solely designed to punish people who are engaged in the sale for profit of drugs that are killing New Jerseyans."

Bre Azanedo, a program manager with Black Lives Matters Paterson, disagrees. Azanedo recently testified against the legislation.

"What's going to happen is there's going to be a lot of black and brown people in jail."

Some have called the new crackdown a "War on Drugs" 2.0

She says going after such a small amount will target small time drug users. It's a repeat of the "War On Drugs," which in the 80's and 90's, filled jails and prisons with a disproportionate amount of people from communities of color. The effort is considered by many to be a failure. The U.S. still has a drug problem.

Azanedo works with a team that does harm reduction: she delivers food, clothing, safe using supplies and Naloxone, for overdoses.

Bre Azanedo says she places Narcan, for overdoses, throughout areas of opiate consumption in Paterson, New Jersey.
/ Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Bre Azanedo says she places Narcan, for overdoses, throughout areas of opiate consumption in Paterson, New Jersey.

Most people pick up their pace or pretend not to notice when they walk past this corner liquor store where people gather. But Azanedo moves with ease in this world, in part, because she's been here before.

Her father was a drug user, right here in Paterson

"He was the best dad I could've asked for" she says. But there was another side. "He picked me up from 'Sweet 16's' [hang out] with my friends, would stop on streets, would stop at the chicken store, would stop on Broadway and just be like, 'Oh I just gotta go see someone real quick.' Now I know what he was doing."

When she was 18, he went to prison. She became the head of house.

"Prison may have saved him in the sense that he became sober, but it destroyed us as a family. I was an adult overnight."

It was then that she started venturing out to the sites where she knew people were using. The train tracks. Behind an abandoned building. The pharmacy parking lot. Someone needed to make sure those people were OK, she says. "I wanted to be the person that I wished my Dad had."

Black Live Matters Paterson's team distributes, among other things fentanyl for harm reduction.
/ Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Black Lives Matter Paterson's team distributes, among other things, fentanyl tests for harm reduction.

Alternatives to criminalization need to be considered

Many experts agree that further criminalization is not going to fix America's drug problem.

"There's no doubt in my mind that law enforcement should be involved. There's no doubt in my mind that the court system should be involved," says Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But we cannot law-enforcement our way out of this fentanyl epidemic. It's a public health epidemic. We need to concentrate and focus on public health solutions in order to help people break their habits, break their addictions."

Bre Azanedo from Black Lives Matters Paterson says, she worries that harsher sentencing will push people further undergroun.
/ Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Bre Azanedo from Black Lives Matters Paterson says, she worries that harsher sentencing will push people further undergroun.

Virginia Krieger, one of the co-founders of the support group Lost Voices Of Fentanyl. She agrees with experts who say incarceration is not the answer to helping addicts. She should know; her own life has been derailed by addiction. In 2015, her daughter Tiffany overdosed on a pill she says she took for back pain. She was told it was percocet, but it was laced with fentanyl.

Grief-stricken by the loss, she says her son soon spiralled into a meth addiction. Krieger does not believe in punishing people into sobriety, but she says it's complicated. She supports incarceration.

"Right now, my son is out there somewhere. I don't know if he's alive, or dead. And he has almost died three times from fentanyl in meth. I would rather see my son in a jail cell, than dead."

She's tired of the politics that get in the way of an effective drug policy in America. She's exhausted from getting roped into debates about immigration and incarceration.

Her priority, is to go after the big drug traffickers pumping Fentanyl over the US-Mexico border. "This isn't a war on drugs. This is a war on fentanyl. If we can get that out of the drug supply, then we can get back to what we know: take care of people."

People caught up in an epidemic, that has killed over a hundred thousand just in the last year.

"That's more than we lost during the 20-year Vietnam war. That should be an alarm. I don't know why the alarm isn't sounding."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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