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Hillsborough officials say new Florida law will help fight fentanyl crisis

“Quite simply, fentanyl kills,” one law enforcement official said.
 
Tampa Police Capt. Travis Maus, left, State Attorney Susan Lopez and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Col. Robert Ura answer questions from the media about  fentanyl-related cases and issues during a news conference at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office on Tuesday.
Tampa Police Capt. Travis Maus, left, State Attorney Susan Lopez and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Col. Robert Ura answer questions from the media about fentanyl-related cases and issues during a news conference at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published July 11, 2023|Updated July 11, 2023

Hillsborough County law enforcement leaders say they are seeing a surge in fentanyl overdoses and plan to wield a new Florida law to hand harsher sentences to fentanyl traffickers.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has arrested 174 people on charges of fentanyl possession and trafficking so far this year, Col. Robert Ura said during a news conference Tuesday in which officials addressed Tampa Bay’s growing fentanyl crisis.

Ura said fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, making it “by far the most dangerous drug” Tampa Bay law enforcement is seeing today. Fentanyl is often laced with other drugs without the knowledge of the user, officials said.

“This is something you don’t want to experiment with because that experiment may be your last breath,” Ura said. “Quite simply, fentanyl kills.”

The case of a Tampa maintenance worker and his cousin found dead after purchasing what they believed to be cocaine demonstrates the pervasive and deadly presence of fentanyl in many drugs, Ura said.

“Please don’t become comfortable thinking you can ingest any substance that’s put before you because the chances are getting higher that it’ll be laced with fentanyl,” Ura said.

Deputies responded to the scene and found the maintenance worker’s phone. The last text he sent was to his drug dealer, telling him something felt wrong and asking what substance he gave him. The dealer responded, offering to take the cocaine back and replace it. However, he never received a response.

The dealer is now in custody, awaiting trial under Florida’s newly stringent fentanyl laws.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1359 on May 1, raising the minimum mandatory prison sentences for fentanyl trafficking. In 2022, trafficking 4 to 14 grams of fentanyl carried a three-year minimum sentence and trafficking 14 to 28 grams of fentanyl carried a 15-year minimum sentence. Now, trafficking the same amounts of fentanyl carry seven-year and 20-year minimum sentences, respectively.

The law includes additional penalties for those selling fentanyl to minors. An adult caught providing 4 grams or more of fentanyl to a minor can face up to life in prison. State Attorney Susan Lopez expressed her support for the bill at the news conference.

“I’m pleased to say that our Legislature is doing their part in strengthening the penalties to deter criminals who are choosing to distribute this poison in our county and on our streets,” Lopez said.

Tampa police investigated 82 opioid-related deaths in the first six months of 2023, many of which involved fentanyl-laced drugs, Tampa Police Capt. Travis Maus said. Police investigated a total of 159 opioid-related deaths in all of 2022, Maus said.

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Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can cause overdose or death, Maus said.

“We’re finding fentanyl mixed with anything,” Maus said. “It should be assumed any illicit drug could contain fentanyl.”