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Sanders backs drug bill to fault dealers in deaths

by Neal Earley | February 19, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that she will back a bill to take on the fentanyl crisis by holding dealers responsible for overdose deaths tied to their drugs, and announced the appointment of Tom Fisher as the state's new drug czar.

The bill, known as the Fentanyl Enforcement and Accountability Act of 2023, would establish a "death by delivery" statute meant to hold dealers responsible for any overdose deaths tied to their drugs. Those who deal fentanyl could be charged with "aggravated death by delivery" and face 20-60 years or life in prison and a $1 million fine if prosecutors can tie it to an overdose death.

Speaking to reporters at the state Capitol on Friday, Sanders said increasing penalties is key to stemming the tide of yearslong addiction and the overdose crisis that has plagued the nation.

"To anyone who claims these new penalties are too harsh, I want you to listen to me and hear me now: Allowing unrepentant [murderers] to stalk our streets is not compassionate," Sanders said. "It's foolish, it's dangerous, and under my leadership and administration it will end."

Sanders said the increased penalties were the state's way of dealing with a crisis that she blamed on President Joe Biden, for not preventing the trafficking of fentanyl over the U.S.-Mexico border. The covid-19 pandemic only made the country's ongoing addiction crisis worse, as some socially isolated people turned to illicit drugs, the Republican governor said.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, pushed back on Sanders' blaming the Biden administration for the fentanyl problem, saying federal officials are prosecuting drug dealers. McCullough said she was open to supporting stiffer penalties for drug dealers, but wanted to read the bill before saying whether she could support it.

Senate Bill 283, sponsored by Sen. Ben Gilmore and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, also would establish a "death by delivery in the first degree" charge for a person who "delivers or conveys" methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine that results in an overdose. Offenders could face a sentence of 10-40 years or life in prison.

Protections under the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act, which provides immunity from prosecution for those seeking medical assistance for someone suffering from a drug overdose, would still apply.

Those who deal fentanyl could face up to 25-60 years or life in prison, whether or not it is connected to an overdose death. Dealing fentanyl or what Gilmore dubbed "super drugs" -- which are cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine -- to a minor would carry a life sentence. Those who commit the offense of "predatory marketing of fentanyl to minors" by packaging the drug in a way to appeal to children could face a sentence of life in prison and a $1 million fine.

Fentanyl test strips also would no longer be considered drug paraphernalia if the bill is passed, to no longer punish drug users for testing for the substance which can often be mixed into other drugs, making them more lethal.

Sanders said Fisher will coordinate the state's response to addiction and trafficking of illicit drugs.

Fisher has previously worked for the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area as an overdose response strategy analyst, worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency and served as a deputy in the Faulkner County sheriff's office.

Fisher said he told Sanders that increasing the penalties for trafficking was key to tackling the addiction crisis.

"Education [and] prevention is never going to leave my mind, but I'm an enforcement person by trade," Fisher said. "So enforcement is a big piece, and this legislation will give us, hopefully, a bigger tool in our toolbox."

Attorney General Tim Griffin said fentanyl has become an issue for law enforcement as the opioid crisis has shifted from the over-prescription of painkillers to synthetic opioids. Arkansas, among other states, has been awarded millions of dollars from pharmaceutical companies such as Janssen, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma for the companies' misleading doctors and the public about how addictive prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin are.

While there is more awareness about the dangers of over-prescribing painkillers, "there is still a demand, but the supply is not there," Griffin said.

Arkansas also has settled with Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. In 2020, Arkansas filed litigation against the pharmacy chain Walgreens for its role in the opioid crisis. The state also has signed onto pending national settlements with Walmart, Teva, Allergan and CVS, according to Carl Vogelpohl, a senior adviser in the attorney general's office.

Print Headline: Sanders backs drug bill to fault dealers in deaths


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