Fentanyl penalties a flashpoint in public safety talks at Capitol

Fentanyl can be many times more deadly than heroin, but Minnesota prosecutors say the state's fentanyl laws are weaker.

County attorneys' push to stiffen criminal penalties for fentanyl sales and possession have run headlong into end-of-session negotiations at the state Capitol. Senate Republicans are pushing the issue, while House Democrats aren't fully on board.

Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders in both parties have agreed to spend $450 million in the public safety and judiciary arenas. Yet rank-and-file lawmakers are struggling to compromise on the initiatives that the final bill will include. The divided Legislature faces a Sunday night deadline to pass bills to Walz's desk.

"There has to be an understanding that fentanyl doesn’t understand politics, it doesn’t discriminate," said Dawn Nyhus, the lead assistant Sherburne County attorney in the criminal division. "We need to be able to have the resources as prosecutors to do what we can to limit its use on the street, to limit the people who are taking it and dying."

The Senate proposal changes fentanyl's weight and penalty thresholds to match heroin. The threshold for a first-degree sale of a controlled substance crime would be reduced to 10 grams from 50 grams. The threshold for first-degree possession would be cut to 25 grams from 500 grams. 

During Wednesday's latest round of negotiations, House Democrats agreed to the changes for first-degree sale of fentanyl, but not on lesser sale offenses or possession crimes.

"It’s not an issue, quite frankly, where there is common ground," House Public Safety Chairman Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said last week. Mariani said the changes would "continue to victimize those who are addicted to fentanyl."

In contrast, Mariani's counterpart in the Senate, Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer, said he viewed it as a key safety issue.

"It’s just unbelievable the amount and the danger to literally millions of people," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. 

To address dealers and drug users, Nyhus said the sale and possession thresholds would both need to change.

"It’s also to allow for possession offenses that give us greater accountability but also a longer period of time where a person can be on probation, on monitoring, getting into treatment and getting other tools that can come through the process," she said.

The Senate's proposal fits into a tough-on-crime package that Democrats say will put more people in prison without addressing the root causes of crime.

Under one proposal that the GOP has since dropped, offenders would have to serve three-fourths of their total sentence in prison. Minnesota law currently requires two-thirds. Republicans are also seeking new penalties for carjacking and other crimes.

Walz said he expected the two sides would reach a compromise before Sunday's deadline.

"I think you’ll see some of that (tougher penalties)," Walz told reporters. "But I think we need to be smart about it, and under some of the estimates we would have to spend several billion dollars in enhancing prisons."