Peggy Hernandez sat close Tuesday afternoon as Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that sets mandatory minimums for drug dealers who carry fentanyl.
The Wellington mother thought of her son, Christian “Ty” Hernandez, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016. She might have thought of the man who was convicted for selling her son the fatal drug, a first-of-its-kind conviction in Palm Beach County. She thought of the families across the state this bill will help.
“This is so surreal for me,” she said. “This is a happy day for the state of Florida. I am elated about this new law. We are going to take back our state and we are going to get these drug dealers off the streets.”
Scott ceremonially signed HB 477 surrounded by Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies, state legislators, state attorneys and the members of the Sober Home Task Force. The bill also sets mandatory minimum sentences for possession of synthetic opioids such as carfentanil.
Fentanyl is an opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine and a major contributor to heroin-related overdoses throughout the state. In 2015, 216 people — more than one person every other day — died in Palm Beach County from heroin-related overdoses, and more than 40 percent of those people had fentanyl in their system, a Palm Beach Post investigation revealed. In comparison, 427 people died of heroin-related overdoses between 2009 and 2014.
Between January and June of 2016, 156 died from fentanyl alone in Palm Beach County.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg said you cannot address the opioid epidemic without addressing fentanyl.
“Until this bill passed, we could not charge fentanyl traffickers with trafficking,” Aronberg said. “Now we can charge fentanyl traffickers with a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison.”
Aronberg said anyone who is in possession of 4 grams of the powerful narcotic faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison. He said at first legislatures were hesitant for such a small amount, but he said that amount of the drug can kill hundreds of people.
Aronberg said that while “you can’t arrest your way out of the epidemic,” he is hopeful the bill will help along with other efforts such as the Sober Home Task Force.
“(The bill) will help us in our fight to keep our county and our state as safe as it can possibly be and end this drug epidemic,” Aronberg said.
The bill will go into effect Oct. 1.
Scott said when he first came into office, he dealt with the pill mills and now the state is suffering from the opioid epidemic. He said the bill will help, but the government is still trying to figure out how to tackle the issue as a whole, noting efforts on local levels as well as providing naloxone, a heroin overdose antidote, to first responders.
“This is one very important (bill) to so many families,” he said. “I hope we don’t lose another life.”
After the governor signed the bill, he took a moment to speak with Hernandez. She said he praised her care and love, saying he was proud of her for standing strong after the death of her 23-year-old son and taking on this crusade.
“Ty” died in February 2016. Her son’s dealer, Christopher Massena, was convicted in August 2016. It was the first case in Palm Beach County where a drug dealer was convicted for selling drugs that killed someone. He was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
Hernandez said at the end of the day she hopes the bill can be renamed after her son and continue to help families so no other young lives are lost.
“(We hope) we can get these drug dealers off the street and get these people some help that they need and we can take back our state,” she said. “If we don’t do something as a whole — and it’s not just the policemen, it’s not just the judges it’s not just the lawyers, the teachers — it’s everyone. It takes everyone to get this drug off the street.”
What The Post reported
A 2-year-long investigation by The Palm Beach Post’s Investigative Team exposed widespread corruption in the county’s billion-dollar addiction treatment industry, including patient brokering and insurance fraud. In November, The Post told the story of the 216 people who died from heroin-related overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2015.