Why you should care
Because the panhandle may start a national trend back to old drug tactics.
It was late January when, in the beach-famous pulse of South Florida, the mayor of Miami held a town hall for the first task force to reduce opioid addiction in his community. “Laws need to be changed at the state,” Carlos Giménez told reporters. “We’ve had more opioid deaths in the last year than car crashes, than homicides.”
It is a common refrain, one heard from West Virginia, where the children of doped-up parents are flooding foster care, to New Hampshire, where Donald Trump — then a candidate — promised to increase mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers while expanding “access and treatment to those struggling with addiction.” And in Florida, legislators not only seemed to hear that clarion call but to heed it: In May, the state Senate added the opioids fentanyl and carfentanil to a list of drugs that mandate a minimum of three years in prison (in many cases, defendants face much more). The increase in mandatory minimums makes Florida the most visible state to diverge from a nationwide trend that until recently had focused on reversing the policies of the Drug War rather than reviving them.
These laws have not deterred drug trafficking at all.
Greg Newburn, director of state policy, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
They are driven, in part, by the devastation wrought by opioids in the state. While heroin and painkillers may not seem like the drugs of choice in the hotshot car-and-celebrity culture of South Beach, deaths from fentanyl-laced heroin use jumped sevenfold in the last available year of data, a Miami-Dade prosecutor reported at that first task force gathering. In 2015, heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone led to nearly 4,000 deaths in the state, according to the most recent Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, about 12 percent of the 33,000 deaths nationwide.
In May, Republican Gov. Rick Scott called a “state of emergency” surrounding opioid abuse, which could allow tens of millions of federal dollars to flow into Florida’s health care system. So while liberal criminal-justice activists and conservative fiscal hawks alike have favored rehabilitation in states as varied as Maryland, Oregon, Texas and Georgia, the Sunshine State has favored an incarceration-heavy approach that could become more widespread under President Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who recently ordered federal prosecutors to seek the strongest sentences against defendants. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions wrote in a memo in early May.
There have been times when Florida led the nation in new policy. While the South was home to 10 of the states that prescribed the most painkillers per capita, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, it was actually Florida that stood out for strong laws limiting pill handouts. The death rate from prescription drug overdoses decreased by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2012, which the CDC said was the result in part of a crackdown on prescription practices by legislators and law enforcement. “Florida shows that policy and enforcement matter. When you take serious action, you get encouraging results,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said at a news conference at the time.
However, the method of response is crucial. And critics say the state’s legislative actions continue a history that’s only worsened the state’s health crises. Laws that set mandatory prison time for arbitrary possession amounts have been shown to capture both addicts and poor minorities in cycles of imprisonment and poverty — and have done little to decrease usage levels in Florida over the past two decades, experts say. “They’re going down the same exact path,” says Greg Newburn, the director of state policy at the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “If you look, cocaine overdose rates are up, heroin rates are almost twice the level they were in 1999, oxycodone deaths are through the roof and marijuana traffic hasn’t abated. … These laws have not deterred drug trafficking at all.”
Part of Florida’s unique relationship with drug laws is due to the structure of its legislature. It is one of 15 states where lawmakers have term limits; senators and representatives serve no more than eight years at a time in office. Philosophically, it fits the state’s conservative aversion to lifelong politicians, but practically it means lawmakers have less institutional knowledge; they often leave before they see the effects of their actions, which makes them more prone to repeat the mistakes of the past, Newburn says: “By the time they truly understand a lot of the nuts and bolts, they’ve moved on.”
The legislature is part-time, and sessions last only two months, leaving little time to grapple with complex bills. So, in some ways, Florida may not be responding to Trump’s drug policies but merely continuing its longstanding addiction to criminalization overtreatment. “If you look at a map of states that have taken comprehensive looks [at reform],” Newburn says, “it’s dozens of states in the country, virtually every state in the South, and Florida is out there by itself.”
As Florida lawmakers watch the effects of their tough tactics, they may want to consider Louisiana, a state that became the “prison capital of the world” for having the highest incarceration rate on Earth, roughly twice the national average. Driven largely by drug laws, those jailings have led to huge costs and little gain. Only recently have lawmakers started reconsidering their policies in an attempt to lessen the burden on the state’s bank account and its residents. “The last couple decades, we just had a big tough-on-crime mantra of people thinking that anyone who commits a crime is terrible,” Louisiana State Rep. Julie Emerson, who has led on criminal-justice-reform laws, tells OZY: “It took some of the churches, family-values organizations to jump on-board and say: ‘It’s costing our state a lot of money, but not just that, it’s costing us a lot in human value.’ ”
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