BOISE — A House committee is expected to vote Monday on a bill that would raise the amounts of heroin needed to trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence while also adding fentanyl to Idaho’s mandatory minimum statute.
This isn’t what most of the House Judiciary Committee members wanted. For the past two years, the panel has voted to repeal mandatory minimums for possessing large amounts of all drugs, which would give judges discretion in imposing sentences. The bill passed the House on an overwhelming and bipartisan basis both times but never got a hearing in the Senate. And aside from the bill itself representing a much-reduced version of what a majority of the committee members wanted, there may be a “gummy issue” nobody had thought of.
Committee Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, who is sponsoring the bill along with Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, told his committee they could make a statement by rejecting the bill or make a difference by passing it. If the bill doesn’t pass, he said, heroin addicts will still sometimes face mandatory minimum sentences for possessing amounts of the drug that are personal use for someone with a high tolerance.
“A year from now we could, can have made a difference to people we’ll never meet by changing these years and changing these quantities,” Chaney said. “Or a year from now we could be back here in the same political struggle with nothing to show for it in nearly half a decade.”
Much of the public testimony at past hearings on mandatory minimums have featured people telling stories of heroin addiction who ended up in prison due to mandatory minimums. Chaney said that, while the House and Senate don’t agree on mandatory minimums in general, there is widespread agreement the heroin thresholds are too low.
“Like a football coach would say, you take what the defense gave you,” he said. “That’s the way you win ballgames. It might not show on a highlight reel, but it’s the way you get things done.”
The bill would raise the amount of heroin needed for a three-year mandatory sentence from 2 to 5 grams. Under current law, 7 grams of heroin triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum. Chaney’s bill would change this so the next step on the scale would be 10 grams, which would lead to a five-year mandatory minimum. Twenty-eight grams or more would trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum under Chaney’s bill rather than 15, as it is under current law. Fentanyl also would be added to the bill, with the same sentences as heroin.
The public testimony Thursday was almost a mirror image of the testimony on mandatory minimum repeal in 2019, this time with representatives of law enforcement in favor of the bill and defense lawyers against it.
“A snowball did make it in hell for the day because you have all of law enforcement … before you saying raise the heroin amounts,” said Paul Jagosh, legislative chairman for the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police.
Jagosh said the bill is a compromise, and he had to work to get his members to support it.
“Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said. “I think we’re addressing the concerns that have been brought up over and over and over again.”
Another issue with the bill that came up at the hearing is whether marijuana edibles, such as gummies or brownies, would be weighed whole and thus trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence if they weigh more than a pound or more. While the law is unclear, Chaney brought a copy of a recent Third Judicial District ruling saying the weight of the marijuana itself, not the candy or baked good within which it is baked, would be the determining factor in whether mandatory minimums apply.
“I don’t believe there’s a gummy issue,” Chaney said. “I never thought there was a gummy issue. And I never thought I’d be standing before this microphone saying gummy issue.”
However, Boise defense lawyer Tom Arkoosh said he worries that ruling could be overturned.
“In my experience, they charge the whole thing including the wrapper,” he said.
Arkoosh said he favors striking the word “mandatory” from the statute entirely, which is what the House has tried to do for the past few years, and doesn’t see Chaney and Lakey’s bill as a real fix.