Contributed photo
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides testifies in front of the Judiciary Committee (Contributed photo)

HARTFORD, CT — It makes little sense to some legislators that they’ve spent the past few years passing numerous bills to combat the opioid epidemic but have done nothing to increase the penalties for those who traffic fentanyl — the drug that contributes more than any other to drug-overdose fatalities.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, which is more addictive and deadly than opioids or heroin.

Members of the Judiciary Committee vowed that they would take on the issue again this year after hearing a pitch Wednesday from Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby. Similar bills have failed in previous years after passing the committee.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 5524: An Act Increasing The Penalties For The Sale Of Fentanyl

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A bill introduced by Klarides, the House minority leader, would amend the definition of narcotic substance to include fentanyl, which currently is only listed as a synthetic drug, meaning it carries a lesser sentence.

“Opioid deaths have been doubling every year since 2013,” Klarides said during a public hearing on the bill this week.

“All I’m asking for is parity” with penalties for other drugs, Klarides told the committee.

Klarides said the bill is an important House Republican proposal to amend the definition of “narcotic substance” to add fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives.

There were 1,038 overdose deaths in Connecticut in 2017, according to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. In nearly two-thirds of those deaths some trace of fentanyl was found in the person’s system. Last year, there were 1,017 overdose deaths and 760 of those deaths involved fentanyl, which is up from 677 in 2017, 483 in 2016, and 189 in 2015.

“Connecticut is in the midst of an opioid epidemic,” Klarides said. “Increasing penalties for the dealing and manufacturing of fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives will not only reduce the use of opioids in Connecticut, but possibly save lives. ”

A substance that is more powerful than heroin should absolutely be included under the definition of a “narcotic substance,” Klarides said.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, asked Klarides why the bill hasn’t made it through the General Assembly previously, considering how the state is knee-deep in the opioid — and fentanyl — crisis.

Klarides, the House minority leader, said she didn’t know the exact reason why, but thought perhaps budget issues might have taken precedence.

Kissel said he would be supporting it this year: “It’s a crisis. It’s not a Republican issue, not a Democratic issue. It’s a public health issue.”

Judiciary Committee members on both sides of the aisle vowed to support the initiative again this year.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said one reason he strongly supports the legislation is that fentanyl “is finding its way into so many other drugs.”

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, said that another reason to increase penalties for selling fentanyl is that perhaps it would help serve as a deterrent to the drug pushers.

“Fentanyl is far less expensive to produce,” O’Neill said. “It’s a great profit center.”

The discussion at the state Capitol came on the same day a man was sentenced to 30 months in prison after one of the biggest fentanyl finds in Connecticut police history.

Derby Police had stopped the 18-wheel tractor trailer that Erick Crespo-Escalante was driving on Route 34 in December 2016 for failing to drive in the proper lane on the highway’s two lane approach to Derby on Route 8.

Inside, police found 25 brick-like packages inside vacuum-sealed bags each containing a kilogram of what later tested positive as fentanyl. Police estimated the drug’s worth to be at least $1.5 million.