RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Amid a surge in overdoses linked to opioids during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Republican state senators is calling for illegal possession of fentanyl to be deemed a felony in North Carolina.

A bill dealing with the issue could come up for a vote later this week.

Click here to read Senate Bill 321

“This is one of the most potent painkillers in the world. And, not only is it a painkiller, it is a killer of men and women,” said Sen. Tom McInnis (R-25th District). “Fentanyl does not discriminate. It takes the rich; it takes the poor.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes fentanyl as “a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.”

A preliminary report released by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in January found there was a 23 percent increase in visits to emergency rooms in 2020 due to opioid overdoses. That was after a decline of 1 percent in 2019 and 9 percent in 2018.

In December, the CDC issued a report describing overdose deaths as “accelerating” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths,” the report noted.

Surrounded by some law enforcement officers and district attorneys Tuesday, Sen. McInnis said they raised the issue of fentanyl possession currently being a misdemeanor and asked lawmakers to change that.

Under the bill, it would be a Class I felony. McInnis said that would be similar to heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

The bill also adds a variety of designer drugs to the state’s list of controlled substances. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday and will be considered by another committee Wednesday before being scheduled for a vote in the full Senate.

“I think this bill is more about the folks that are making a profit of off other people’s misery,” said Jacksonville Police Chief Mike Yaniero.

Randy Abbott lost his daughter, Vanessa, to an opioid overdose in 2015. Since then, he’s become an advocate for improving treatment options for those battling addiction.

“We’re heading in the wrong direction, quite honestly,” he said. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We’re never going to arrest our way out of it. We need to be looking at ways to get people treatment rather than incarcerate them.”

He said the General Assembly has taken some steps recently that he thinks have been helpful, including passing the STOP Act and the Good Samaritan Law.

Among other provisions, the STOP Act put limits on the quantity of opioids people can be prescribed, while the Good Samaritan Law provides protections for people who call 911 to report an overdose.

“As things get worse, you have to work even harder. And, that seems hard to say because we are working extremely hard,” said Abbott.

Jesse Bennett, executive director of the NC Harm Reduction Coalition, said the proposal could cause more harm.

“NCHRC opposes any bill that attempts to continue the destruction that the war on drugs continues to perpetuate. Bills such as these are window dressing and an attempt for the GA to ‘appear’ as though it is doing something in curbing the illicit fentanyl trade. Prohibition is a failed experiment that continues to cost lives, American lives,” he wrote in an email. “Until we start addressing substance use disorder from a needs-based system no amount of drug policy or felonies will curb the flow of illicit fentanyl and will, in fact, make it worse.”