With overdoses up, states look at harsher fentanyl penalties
People whose family members have died from fentanyl overdose stand at a committee meeting on Jan. 19, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. With U.S. overdose fatalities at an all-time high, state legislatures are considering tougher penalties for possession of fentanyl, the powerful opioid linked to most of the deaths. (AP Photo/James Pollard)
By Gabe Stern, James Pollard And Geoff Mulvihill in Reno
RENO, Nev. (AP) — State lawmakers nationwide are responding to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history by pushing harsher penalties for possessing fentanyl and other powerful lab-made opioids that are connected to about 70,000 deaths a year.
Imposing longer prison sentences for possessing smaller amounts of drugs represents a shift in states that in recent years have rolled back drug possession penalties. Proponents of tougher penalties say this crisis is different and that, in most places, the stiffer sentences are intended to punish drug dealers, not just users.
“There is no other drug — no other illicit drug — that has the same type of effects on our communities,” said Mark Jackson, the district attorney for Douglas County, Nevada, and president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, which is pushing for stricter penalties for fentanyl-related crimes.
But the strategy is alarming recovery advocates who say focusing on the criminal angle of drugs has historically backfired, including when lawmakers elevated crack cocaine penalties in the 1980s.
“Every time we treat drugs as a law enforcement problem and push stricter laws, we find that we punish people in ways that destroy their lives and make it harder for them to recover later on,” said Adam Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He said people behind bars often continue getting drugs — often without receiving quality addiction treatment — then emerge to find it’s harder to get work.
Since 2020, drug overdoses are now linked to more than 100,000 deaths a year nationally, with about two-thirds of them fentanyl-related. That’s more than 10 times as many drug deaths as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic.
Fentanyl mostly arrives in the U.S. from Mexico and is mixed into supplies of other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and counterfeit oxycodone pills. Some users seek it out. Others don’t know they’re taking it.
Ingesting 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, meaning 1 gram — about the same as a paper clip — could contain 500 lethal doses.
That’s what’s driving some lawmakers to crack down with harsh penalties, along with adopting measures such as legalizing materials to test drug supplies for fentanyl and distributing naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses.
Before this year’s legislative sessions began, a dozen states had already adopted fentanyl possession measures, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And in this year, in one legislative chamber of liberal Oregon and one chamber of conservative West Virginia, lawmakers have agreed upon tougher penalties. In her State of the State speech this March, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, called on lawmakers to adopt a drug trafficking bill that includes tougher fentanyl sentences.
In Nevada, where Democrats control the Legislature, a bill backed by Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford would give one to 20 years in prison for selling, possessing, manufacturing or transporting 4 grams or more of fentanyl into the state, depending on the amount. It’s a change for Ford, who has supported criminal justice reforms including a sweeping 2019 law that, among other provisions, raised the threshold for such penalties to 100 grams. It would also remove fentanyl from the state’s “Good Samaritan” law, which exempts people from criminal drug possession charges while reporting an overdose.
“What we’ve learned is that lowering the thresholds for all drugs was overinclusive,” Ford said.
Harm reduction advocates are pushing Ford and others to rethink their support, arguing the thresholds for longer penalties can sweep up low-level users — not just the dealers the law is aimed at — as well as some who may not even know they are taking fentanyl. They warn that the state’s crime labs test only for the presence of fentanyl, not the exact amount in a mixture of drugs. Thus, people with over 4 grams of drugs containing a few milligrams of fentanyl could be subject to trafficking penalties, they say.
Rosa Johnson runs a needle exchange where she meets people who could face consequences should the stricter fentanyl bill pass. For the dozens of people that show up each day, it is rare for them to cite fentanyl as their “drug of choice.” But it’s also rare that fentanyl test strips come back negative, with the drug being “laced in a lot of things,” Johnson said.
Other lawmakers introduced two bills to create penalties for fentanyl with lower thresholds, though much of the internal debate surrounds the Ford-backed bill. Meanwhile, Nevada’s Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, a former sheriff, has vowed to introduce tougher legislation that would make possession of any amount of fentanyl the same felony threshold as fentanyl trafficking.
Both Republican-led chambers in South Carolina have passed fentanyl trafficking measures with bipartisan support, although lawmakers haven’t agreed on which version to send the governor. Senators also unanimously approved a bill allowing alleged drug dealers to be charged with homicide in overdose deaths.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford slammed colleagues for selling a “false bill of goods.” While Republican Rep. Doug Gilliam said he understood concerns about ambiguity, he said lawmakers had to send a “strong message” to drug dealers.
A Senate subcommittee heard emotional testimony from family members of people who died of a fentanyl overdose. Among them was Holly Alsobrooks, co-founder of an advocacy group that also supports more fentanyl test strips, opioid antidotes and rehabilitation centers. While Alsobrooks said there is no “perfect” solution, she said the fentanyl trafficking measures are the “best” answers she has heard.
“We are fully behind this bill,” she said. “And if people go to jail, they’re going to go to jail.”
Marc Burrows, who leads a Greenville-based harm reduction program that reports it has reversed 700 overdoses through the provision of opioid antidotes, said these bills could increase deaths by creating hesitancy among drug users to report overdoses.
“I just don’t know if a policy like this is the way to do it,” Burrows said.
Pollard reported from Columbia, South Carolina, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Pollard and Stern are members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit service program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Quebec firm to pay $10M to avoid charges over bribes promised to Philippine officials
Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno attends a news conference Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009, at Manila’s Quezon City in the Philippines. A Quebec forensics company promised millions of dollars in bribes to officials in the Philippines, including a cabinet minister and his brother, as it sought lucrative police contracts, according to a statement of facts attached to a deal the firm struck to avoid prosecution in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bullit Marquez
By Darryl Greer
A Quebec forensics company promised millions of dollars in bribes to officials in the Philippines, including a cabinet minister and his brother, as it sought lucrative police contracts, according to a statement of facts attached to a deal the firm struck to avoid prosecution in Canada.
The deal between Ultra Electronics Forensic Technology Inc. and federal prosecutors has been approved by the Superior Court of Quebec and is Canada’s second remediation agreement — also known as deferred prosecution — since the mechanism was added to the Criminal Code in 2018 to address corporate wrongdoing.
The other deal was struck between Quebec provincial prosecutors and SNC-Lavalin over corruption in its contract to refurbish the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal.
The latest agreement requires the Montreal firm to pay about $10.5 million, co-operate with investigations, report to prosecutors about implementing the agreement and abide by an anti-bribery and corruption program overseen by an external auditor hired at the firm’s expense.
The court approved the deal with Ultra back in February but it wasn’t until May 16 that it released the ruling, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
The firm sells ballistic identification technology to police forces all over the world to help solve gun crimes.
“We welcome the approval of the remediation agreement related to a historical contract in the Philippines,” Ultra CEO Alvaro Venegas said in an email.
“No one implicated is involved with the company today. The conduct in question occurred more than five years ago, and we have since put in place significantly enhanced management, culture, systems and controls.”
In September 2022, the RCMP announced fraud and bribery charges under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act against the company and four of its executives, Robert Walsh, Philip Timothy Heaney, René Bélanger and Michael McLean. The cases against the individual executives continue, while the charges against the company are stayed and will be withdrawn if it complies with the remediation agreement.
The agreed statement of facts attached to the court’s ruling says two senior officers at the company were involved in a scheme from 2006 to 2018 to bribe Philippine officials to secure $17 million in contracts with the Philippines National Police.
Commission payments used to mask the bribery totalled just under $4.4 million, although the “exact amounts of bribes paid, and to whom they were paid, is not available in the evidence,” the statement of facts says.
But it says the bribes were “earmarked and promised to” public officials and others with “sufficient gravitas to exert some influence” on those involved in the procurement process.
The statement of facts says the public officials included Ronaldo Puno, who was secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government from 2006 to 2010. It says Puno “was a key figure in securing the budget and ensuring the procurement of” the company’s flagship ballistics identification product.
The statement says that beginning in September 2006 through January 2018, two senior company officers enlisted the help of “commercial agent” Rizalino Espino in Manila to help lock down the police contracts.
Espino’s company, Concept Dynamics Enterprises, was to receive commissions on a percentage of any contracts, of which “a substantial portion” was intended as bribes.
The statement says Espino enlisted a pair of local businessmen to help with the bribery scheme because of their “close relationship” to Puno and his brother Rodolpho Puno, who was chairman of the Philippines Road Board at the time.
Espino, the statement says, agreed to “work his contacts to get the Puno brothers on board,” while another associate who was a retired police general worked contacts within the police force, including the chief and its logistic director.
The statement says that over 12 years, Espino and an associate were given “ample latitude” by Ultra Electronics’ employees “to work on the payment of bribes to public officials and their entourage.”
But the scheme unravelled after Ultra’s president received a letter in April 2018 from a former sales agent alleging corrupt practices.
By then, Ultra had been acquired by a new parent firm in the United Kingdom, and the company co-operated extensively with the RCMP and British authorities during the bribery investigation and also fired the employees involved in 2019.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued a statement about the remediation agreement on May 17, saying Ultra would have to pay a penalty of $6,593,178, a surcharge of $659,318 and forfeit $3,296,589 “for the advantage obtained from the wrongful conduct.”
It says the Superior Court of Quebec “anticipates that approving this agreement will encourage corporations to voluntarily disclose wrongdoing.”
Prosecution service guidelines say that remediation agreements “are used in appropriate cases as an alternative to prosecution and serve as a means to hold organizations accountable while putting in place measures to mitigate the risk of future offences and harm to third parties, such as employees, victims and investors.”
Remediation agreements can only be struck with organizations and are not available to individual criminal defendants.
Their use was at the heart of a political storm in 2019 when former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould said she was improperly pressured by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to allow a remediation agreement to be negotiated with SNC-Lavalin related to corrupt dealings in Libya. She refused to do so and attributed her subsequent demotion to this, which Trudeau denied.
A separate deal between Quebec prosecutors and SNC-Lavalin in 2022 saw the firm agree to pay $29.6 million over three years to settle criminal bribery charges stemming from bridge work in Montreal.
In the case of Ultra Electronics, the federal prosecution service struck the deal with the company shortly after the fraud and bribery charges were announced and the court approved the agreement in February.
The release of the ruling and statement of facts was held up as several details required redactions because of the ongoing cases against Walsh, Heaney, Bélanger and McLean.
Lawyers for Heaney, Bélanger and McLean did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Sutton, who represents company founder Walsh, said in an email that “given that charges are pending, my client has nothing to say at this time.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.
O’Toole says CSIS told him he was focus of Chinese misinformation, suppression effort
Conservative member of Parliament Erin O’Toole speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. O’Toole was speaking on an opposition motion regarding the public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference and being informed by CSIS that he is a target of China. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservative MP Erin O’Toole says Canada’s spy agency has told him he was the target of Chinese interference intended to discredit him and promote false narratives about his policies while party leader.
Rising in the House of Commons on a question of privilege Tuesday, O’Toole said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service briefing revealed a range of actions against him.
They included Chinese Communist Party funding to create misinformation, the use of groups and the WeChat social media platform to amplify the mistruths and a campaign of voter suppression against him during the 2021 general election, he said.
The former Conservative leader said the threats against him and members of his caucus were not flagged to him by the government or security agencies at the time.
They were also not communicated to the Conservatives through the federal task force intended to help safeguard the integrity of the 2021 election, he added.
O’Toole said the Liberal government’s inaction amounted to a violation of his privileges as an MP and leader of the Opposition.
“The briefing from CSIS confirmed to me what I suspected for quite some time, that my parliamentary caucus and myself were the target of a sophisticated misinformation and voter suppression campaign orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China before and during the 2021 general election.”
On Monday, New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan said CSIS informed her last week she has been targeted by China since before the 2019 federal election over her advocacy for human rights in Hong Kong and for the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. She said she was not at liberty to discuss specifics of the targeting.
In addition, David Johnston, the federal government’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, said in his recent interim report there was intelligence indicating Beijing was seeking information about Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives.
But Johnston’s interim report found little evidence supporting O’Toole’s claim specific candidates lost in the 2021 election because of foreign interference.
He said it was unclear whether information campaigns against Conservatives were tied to a state-sponsored source, and there was a legitimate possibility that Chinese-Canadians did not agree with the Conservative’s hardline position on China.
In that case, it would not be foreign interference — it would be the “democratic process,” the report said.
Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident – or an accumulation of incidents – threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.
There was no such announcement in 2021 or concerning the 2019 election. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.
Government House leader Mark Holland said Tuesday the federal Liberals still have faith in the man they appointed to investigate the issue of foreign interference in Canadian elections.
But Holland would not confirm whether the government could fire Johnston if an NDP motion calling for his ouster passes in the House of Commons this week.
The House debated a motion from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Tuesday that calls for the government to remove Johnston as special rapporteur and to call a public inquiry.
Singh says he doesn’t want to attack Johnston personally, but is concerned there is a clear apprehension of bias undermining the work he can do because of his ties to the prime minister.
Opposition party motions are not binding and the government already ignored an earlier NDP motion calling for a public inquiry that passed in March.
That motion came just a week after the Liberals appointed Johnston to look into allegations the Chinese government attempted to interfere in the last two federal elections.
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre repeated calls for a public inquiry Tuesday and discounted Johnston’s role as a “fake job.”
“We need to take back control of our democracy from foreign forces, we need to put Canadians back in control of their lives,” he said.
Poilievre, who succeeded O’Toole as permanent party leader after the last election, said he would call a public inquiry if he becomes prime minister, reiterating his reluctance to view the classified section of Johnston’s report offered to party leaders.
“The prime minister’s plan is he wants to mark secret things that would otherwise be publicly debatable, but put things that would be in a grey area under the secrecy of the state, and then put them before me to prevent me from speaking publicly,” he said.
Singh said he will continue to push for a public inquiry but won’t end his confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberal minority government and trigger an election.
“I don’t see how it’s logical if the goal is to protect our democracy to then trigger an election when we’re worried about foreign interference.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
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