New Hampshire Is Weighing Harsher Fentanyl Punishments

    New Hampshire is weighing a series of bills that would increase punishments for fentanyl-related activity, introducing new mandatory minimum sentences. Republican lawmakers are working to advance the bills. Opponents warn they will be counterproductive and harmful.

    Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate have introduced a package, consisting of Senate Bills 414, 415 and 316.

    Bill 414 would set a mandatory minimum sentence for distribution of a controlled substance that results in death. Anyone who manufactures or sells a Schedule I or II drug would be held “strictly liable” for the death of anyone using that drug, and face a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.

    Bill 415 would create further mandatory minimums. Activities involving at least 5 grams of fentanyl or its analogs will carry a minimum of 3.5 years in prison, rising to a minimum of seven years for 28 grams or more.

    Bill 316 would additionallly penalize transporting fentanyl with intent to distribute, making it a Class A felony with a minimum five-year sentence. Vehicles or other assets used would be seized.

    “We’re consistently seeing people arrested who are low-level users that shared small quantities. Why would it be different when we pile on a mandatory minimum?”

    Harm reductionists oppose these measures. One advocate, whose work includes providing harm reduction supplies to people who use drugs in New Hampshire, said that these laws would end up targeting vulnerable people using drugs.

    “Most of the larger dealers don’t enter New Hampshire, they generally don’t touch the product,” John Burns, executive director of SOS Recovery Community Organization, told Filter. “We’re consistently seeing people arrested who are low-level users that shared small quantities. We’re not seeing big dealers being charged for ‘death resulting,’ so why would it be different when we pile on a mandatory minimum?”

    Regarding Bill 415 specifically, he added: “We have individuals that we serve in our harm reduction and recovery programs who use 5 grams a day. Drug use tends to happen in small community settings where people use together. People are often purchasing for three or four people at a time, then picking up and bringing it back and using together. This targets whoever in those social circles happens to pick up and have a car.”

    The bills passed the Senate on March 7, and have since been considered by the House. On March 22, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committe held an “executive session” to debate the bills. For Bills 414 and 316, the committee vote was a 10-10 tie, with unanimous Democratic opposition. Bill 415 received a 12-8 vote which recommends an interim study and delays consideration until 2025, according to reporting by the New Hampshire Union Leader. All the bills will now be subject to a debate and floor vote in the House.

    While there’s a clear split along party lines, the committee debate also highlighted differences among party colleagues over the bills. The committee chair, Representative Terry Roy (R), argued that mandatory minimums are necessary to punish people he said “are bringing [fentanyl] into our state and poisoning our children.” Rep. John Sytek (R) voted for the bills, but admitted, “I am not very happy about it.”

    Among Democrats, Rep. David Meuse slammed the proposals as “political theater,” doubting they would help at all with opioid-involved deaths. But his colleague, Rep. Karen Reid, claimed that people who sell drugs are attracted to New Hampshire because of relatively permissive laws compared to neighboring states.

    “It seems backwards to increase penalties for people involved in an overdose … I anticipate it will just dissuade people from interacting with first responders.”

    Rep. Amanda Bouldin (D) was among those who voted against the bills. Almost 10 years ago, she led a successful effort to pass a “Good Samaritan” law in New Hampshire, protecting people who call 911 for an overdose from being arrested for drug possession. She fears that harsh mandatory minimums will counteract the effects of that law, putting people at greater risk.

    “It seems backwards to increase penalties for people involved in an overdose because it sounds like we’re going to roll back the clock to the overdose death rate we had before we started encouraging people to call 911,” she told Filter, while acknowledging that overdose rates have fluctuated in recent years. “I anticipate increased penalties will just dissuade people from interacting with first responders, and I want people to feel comfortable calling 911.”

    Burns pointed to limitations of New Hampshire’s Good Samaritan law, however, which he said would only be exacerbated by the current bills. “We hear regularly from people who use drugs; most of the overdose reversals happen from them, far more than those reversed by first responders,” he said. “They communicate to us regularly they don’t want to call 911 because that [Good Samaritan] law doesn’t apply if there’s a ‘death resulting’ charge. They feel it’s already watered down to a point it doesn’t protect them. This will only make that worse.”

    New Hampshire’s recent overdose figures have worsened much faster than in the country overall. The state medical examiner found that in 2022, 486 people died of overdose, the highest number since 2017. Preliminary data showed an increase of 14 percent from 2021-2022. In the United States at large, there was an increase of a fraction of 1 percent that year. It’s estimated that over 80 percent of New Hampshire’s overdose deaths involve fentanyl.

    Rep. Bouldin explained what’s next for the new bills in the House, where Republicans hold a narrower majority than they do in the Senate. “These bills will go to the House floor vote soon, and there’s no more committees,” she said. “With the bills that came out of committee 10-10, there will be a debate on the floor. I hope the majority of Democrats will be on the side of criminal justice reform. And there is a pseudo-libertarian contingency of the Republican caucus that I anticipate will also be on [that side]. So I’m thinking odds are good these bills will die on House floor.”

    On the other hand, Rep. Bouldin explained that under the rules of the legislature, Republicans could get together in a “committee of conference”—a closed-door meeting where members of the majority party can negotiate and adopt last-minute changes to legislation before it gets sent to the governor.

    This tactic could be a “hail Mary,” she said, for Republicans to get the bills through late in the session. And if they do reach Governor Chris Sununu (R), she expects him to sign them into law.


    Photograph (cropped) by Corde 11 via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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