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Assembly Passes Bill to Enact Stronger Penalties For Heroin

Lower Possession Thresholds Would Incarcerate More People, According to OLS

TRENTON, NJ—The NJ State Assembly passed a bill on November 13 that would increase penalties for those convicted of dealing heroin, or possessing it with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or disperse the drug.

If adopted into law, the bill would cut the "possession with intent" quantity threshold amounts in half, making possession with intent to distribute as little as .17 ounces of heroin a second-degree crime, and anything over 2.5 ounces a first-degree crime.

Original sponsors Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove, Senator Chris Connors, and Assemblyman Brion Rumpf issued a joint statement, stating that "the penalties provided under current state law are not reflective of today's harsh reality."

The bill, A-783aims to curb the dealing of heroin, increasing the penalties by way of lowering the offense thresholds on manufacturing, distribution, dispersion, or possession with the intent to perform the previous three actions. 

It passed with an overwhelming majority in the State Assembly, by a 66-2 margin, with five members abstaining.  Both of New Brunswick's representatives, Joe Egan and Joe Danielsen, voted yes.

A companion bill in the State Senate, S-211, still has not been scheduled for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, who voted against it, stated that the bill's advocates failed to prove that increasing penalties for heroin would reduce the number of users or overall consumption.

"If the war on drugs proves anything, it's that you can lock up hundres of thousands of people, employ huge numbers of cops, prosecutors... and still do absolutely nothing to stem the tide of drug abuse," Assemblyman Carroll stated in an email.

Roseanne Scotti, the State Director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, also voiced her opposition for the bill, citing concerns that there would be considerable racial disparity in how the law is enforced and how defendants are sentenced.

"When you say the war on drugs has failed, this is what you mean," Scotti added.  "You can't then turn around and say yes, let's increase the penalties, and somehow that's going to do something".  

Currently, heroin possession is broken down into three degrees of offenses.

Possession with intent to distribute less than one half an ounce of heroin is considered a third-degree crime. It carries a fine of up to $75,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.

Having betwen one half an ounce and five ounces constitutes a second-degree crime, which carries a sentence of 18 months to five years in prison.

Possession of over five ounces, which includes adulterants and dilutants, constitutes a first-degree crime, and can carry a fine of up to $500,000, as well as a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years. 

Laws currently exist that add additional penalties for heroin trafficking, the selling of heroin in school zones, as well as selling to minors or pregnant females. 

Under the new law, the threshold for a first-degree crime would be lowered from 5 to 2.5 ounces.

Between .17 and 2.5 ounces would a second-degree crime, while less than .17 ounces would constitute a crime in the third-degree.

An analysis of the bill by the Office of Legislative Services found that "the inmate population would increase by approximately 179 additional inmates".

By year three after the implementation of the bill, the law was estimated to have a cost of $3.4 million.  OLS also predicted a $5.6 million cost by year four and $7.7 million by year five.

To become law, the bill would need to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full Senate, and Governor Chris Christie.

Laws and public initiatives around heroin are nothing new for New Jersey, where opiate addiction has become a growing epidemic.

Gov. Christie, a former US Attorney, says he is a staunch advocate of treatment over incarceration for non-violent addicts.

Over the summer, Christie had attended the conservative "Road to Majority" conference in Washington DC, hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  It was there that the Governor regarded his support for more treatment-based approaches to non-violent drug offenders as an extention of the "pro-life" agenda.

"What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to be able to get the tools they need to be able to deal with this disease," Christie stated at the conference.

In July 2012, Christie signed a law into effect that would give mandatory rehab time, as opposed to prison, to non-violent drug offenders. It established a $2.5 million budget that expanded drug courts in several counties.

Rehabilition would be further broken down into intensive outpatient and-or inpatient treatment programs. 

Then in May 2013, the Governor signed into law the "Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act," which would give immunity from arrest to individuals who called 911 to report drug overdoses. 

That summer, county prosecutor's across New Jersey began employing the "strict liability for drug death" statue, which would make drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths. 

Nearly a year later, a pilot program was launched in Mommouth and Ocean Counties that tested a drug antidote naloxone, also known as Narcan. The antidote blocks the brains opiate receptors, thereby negating the effects of heroin. 

With the success of the pilot, Christe announced in June that the would be expanding the antidote program for the entire state.