The opioid crisis is dire enough without adding insult to injury. With almost 12,000 deaths from overdoses in Massachusetts since the year 2000—increasing sharply in recent years with fentanyl-laced heroin hitting the streets—the human cost to users, their families, and our communities is already tremendous. But thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related criminal offenses that cost is far higher than it needs to be.
A bit of history is in order. Decades back, sentencing decisions for such offenses were generally made by individual judges—who could then lower or remove jail time, or order an alternative sentence to a drug treatment facility, for non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession and the like.
The passage of the Controlled Substances Penalties Amendments Act by Congress in 1984—followed by a number of related laws on the federal and state level—took that power away from the courts and set mandatory minimum sentences that could not be modified by judges. Prisons around the country began to fill with drug offenders. And many nonviolent offenders ended up doing more time than violent offenders like members of major drug cartels.
Worse still, racism was baked into the new system, with drugs like the crack form of cocaine sold in poorer communities of color drawing far longer sentences than drugs like the powder cocaine sold in wealthier white communities. The arrest rate for people of color has remained consistently higher as well. According to the state Sentencing Commission, Massachusetts imprisons Black defendants eight times more than white defendants. Latino defendants are sent up almost five times more.
Then, in 1996, OxyContin—a synthetic opiate pain medication—came on the market in 80 mg pill form. It was developed by a small Connecticut pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma—an early pioneer … not in synthesizing oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin which had originally been developed in Germany in 1916, but in something more insidious: the direct marketing of drugs to doctors. According to Pacific Standard, Purdue doubled its sales staff in the first four years of the OxyContin rollout. That staff developed a database that identified doctors who prescribed pain medication more heavily than others. They focused their sales effort on those doctors—encouraging them to overprescribe the medication for a wide variety of conditions. In 2000, the company released a 160 mg pill specifically aimed at users that had developed tolerance to opioids—which became the wildly popular street drug we know today. Crushed and sniffed by tens of thousands of users in the Bay State alone. And so, by 2010, OxyContin accounted for over one-third of American painkiller sales.
Most of you know the rest of the story. The legions of newly addicted Oxy users eventually ran out of prescriptions, and turned to whatever they could get to replace it—inevitably leading many of them to heroin. A sane government would’ve stepped in early on in this process, shut a company like Purdue down, and significantly expanded public funding for solid treatment and recovery facilities for the drug’s many casualties. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Purdue was making over $3 billion a year on OxyContin by 2010, and had a lock on legal sales of the drug until its patent expired in 2013. Even as public funding for treatment got cut.
Meanwhile, street sales of Oxy and the resulting spike in heroin sales led to a whole new wave of nonviolent offenders sent to prison for years with mandatory minimum sentences.
Unfortunately, action to reform such strict sentencing laws has been slow to come at the federal level and here in the Commonwealth. With a new session of the state legislature just beginning, there are no new reform bills to recommend. But it’s reasonable to expect the main reform bill of the last session, An Act to Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws for Drug Offenses, will be reintroduced this time around. The bill would repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses and let courts impose sentences that fit the crimes.
It’s ironic that, according to WBUR, “several other states, including conservative states, have overhauled their sentencing laws” while ostensibly progressive Massachusetts lags behind. But thanks to the work of grassroots organizations like Jobs Not Jails and the Mass Organization for Addiction Recovery, high level officials like Mass Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Mass Supreme Judicial Court have recently gone on record in support of mandatory minimum reform.
That’s great, but without voters across Mass putting pressure on state legislators it could still be years before the needed reform passes. So, the best thing that readers can do to help stop this devastating outgrowth of the already tragic opioid crisis is to watch for the new mandatory minimum reform bill and join advocates to demand that your state reps and senators do the right thing and pass it.
This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
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Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.