The Assembly Judiciary Committee has unanimously passed legislation sponsored by Deputy Republican Leader Nancy Muñoz to combat the heroin epidemic facing New Jersey.

The bill, A-783/A-2831, implements a recommendation from the July 2013 report from the State Commission on Investigation titled “Scenes from an Epidemic: A Report on the SCI’s Investigation of Prescription Pill and Heroin Abuse.” It increases the penalties for manufacturing, distributing, and dispensing heroin by reducing the amount of heroin necessary to be charged for first, second and third-degree offenses.“It’s a frightening epidemic that crosses racial, geographic and socioeconomic lines,” said Muñoz, R-Union, Morris and Somerset. “We need to give law enforcement officials the tools they need to prosecute criminals who are spreading heroin in our local communities.”

A report released in April by the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use by New Jersey’s Youth and Young Adults identified heroin abuse as “the number one health care crisis” confronting the state.

“Heroin is a cheaper but more potent alternative that drug dealers are using to meet the growing demand for opiates and avoid the more serious criminal penalties,” said Muñoz. “If we are going rid our communities of heroin abuse, it’s time we make the punishment fit the crime.”

Current law measures the seriousness of the crime by the weight of the controlled substances involved. Equivalent weights or quantities of heroin and cocaine are treated identically under the law, which ignores the difference between how those two drugs are used. The amounts of heroin consumed by an average user and carried by an average dealer are far lower than those involving cocaine.

Under the bill, the threshold for a first-degree offense would be lowered from five ounces to 2.5 ounces or more of heroin. It carries a prison term of 10 to 20 years, up to a $500,000 fine, or both. In addition, a mandatory minimum term may be imposed, fixed at, or between, one-third and one-half of the sentence imposed with no eligibility for parole.

For a second-degree offense the threshold quantity would be reduced to 0.17 ounces or more, but less than 2.5 ounces of heroin. It is punishable by imprisonment for five to 10 years, up to a $150,000 fine, or both.

A third-degree offense would require a threshold quantity of less than 0.17 ounces and is punishable by three to five years in prison, up to a $75,000 fine, or both.