MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The war against a powerful and deadly synthetic drug is heating up in the legislature.
Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, continues to sink its teeth into Alabama, and deaths from the dangerous drug are on the rise.
A new bill is geared at creating harsher penalties for fentanyl and heroin dealers, smugglers and traffickers.
Fentanyl is an opiate that's cheaper but much more potent than heroin.
Barry Matson, the Executive Director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, says the legislation is critical to stop the flow of the "poison" into the state.
It would add fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, like Carfentanil, to the list of scheduled drugs.
"The goal is to give law enforcement the tools to make the cases we need to make," Matson said.
In a 100-0 vote on Tuesday, the bill overwhelming passed the Alabama House and now moves on to the senate.
It orders a one-year minimum prison term for possessing heroin or fentanyl. The maximum penalty under the bill is for trafficking 10 or more kilos of heroin or fentanyl, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Fentanyl and Carfentanil and their designer drugs are synthetic forms of opioid or heroin. Fentanyl and Carfentanil, unlike other opioids, are measured in micrograms rather than grams due to their deadly effects upon contact to the human body.
A simple pack of table sweetener, used every day in restaurants, measures 1000 milligrams. In comparison, two milligrams of Fentanyl, ingested or making contact with the skin, will kill a person unless an immediate antidote is administered. The drug was responsible for the singer Prince's death.
Also in comparison, Carfentanil, a synthetic form of Fentanyl, was designed as an elephant tranquilizer and is 1000 times stronger than Fentanyl.
Currently, there is no crime in Alabama for trafficking these drugs. Two milligrams of Fentanyl is no different than a tractor-trailer load.
The new legislation is critical to law enforcement and prosecutors in fight against those that import Fentanyl, Carfentanil and other synthetic dangerous opioids into Alabama, Matson said.
"It's one of the greatest threats that we have as a community, the threat of illegal synthetic drugs, Fentanyl and others in that class of drugs. We hear about heroin, but most of the deaths that we have from heroin overdoses are fentanyl," he added.
The bill does not apply to the type of fentanyl a doctor would prescribe to a patient in need of pain medication.
"We're talking about synthetic fentanyl drugs that are manufactured in terrible conditions in China and then smuggled into this country," Matson explained. "Most of the deaths that we're seeing now, the number of fentanyl deaths, are on the rise. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences also says the number of fentanyl deaths around the state are on the rise. Sometimes it's pure fentanyl, sometimes heroin is laced with it. It's a mix."
"We're very hopeful that this will soon become law. It's very important," said Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey. "In North Alabama, and especially Birmingham, this is a huge issue and it's trickling down to Montgomery. Very soon we're going to start seeing the effects of fentanyl mixed with heroin here in Montgomery."
Bailey says there have been two recent deaths attributed to fentanyl investigated in Montgomery, including a case where heroin was possibly cut with fentanyl.
As the bill continues to gain traction, there's also an effort underway to protect prosecutors and investigators handling fentanyl cases.
Matson is working to make the life-saving antidote Narcan available in the offices of every District Attorney across the state.
"The DA's Office handles so many narcotic drug cases through drug court, prosecutions, so they're in harm's way all of the time," he said. "I want to be able to make sure that they're protected so that if there's an accidental exposure from fentanyl, they have what they need."
Soon, the medicine will be in all 67 counties for prosecutors and DA investigators.
"We're very relieved that we're going to be getting this antidote because what we are seeing from across the country, this is an extremely dangerous drug. Just mere contact with it can kill you within minutes. It's very important that we get this out to law enforcement and to district attorneys who will be dealing with these drugs when we're preparing for court or when they're making arrests, so that they're protected," District Attorney Bailey said.
"It's just like having a defibrillator in the office or somebody trained for CPR, now sadly, we live in a day and age where we've got to have an anecdote for fentanyl or heroine so the people who work in the DA's Office are protected," Matson added.