Sanders announces fentanyl trafficking legislation, new “drug czar” for Arkansas

Proposed law increases prison sentences in cases where death results from trafficked narcotics

By: - February 17, 2023 5:45 pm

From left: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, state drug enforcement czar Tom Fisher and state Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett) talk after Friday’s press conference announcing Fisher in his new role and legislation Gilmore will co-sponsor to target the distribution of fentanyl in Arkansas. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas Legislature will consider legislation that would charge drug traffickers with murder if someone dies of an overdose after receiving drugs from them, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin announced at a Friday press conference.

Fentanyl traffickers would be sentenced to between 20 and 60 years in prison with the possibility of a life sentence, according to identical bills filed Friday.

Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) are co-sponsoring both bills, Senate Bill 283 and House Bill 1456.

The legislation outlines “death by delivery” as first-degree, second-degree and aggravated offenses, and “predatory marketing of fentanyl to minors” would be punishable by life in prison and a $1 million fine.

“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.”

The bill includes exemptions for medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies in the course of their professions.

170,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, and 628 were Arkansans, Sanders said.

Fentanyl is typically not sought out or taken on its own but instead laced with other substances, from drugs like cocaine and heroin to pills that pass as various forms of prescription medication.

The Arkansas Legislature elevated fentanyl trafficking to a Class Y felony in 2022. The penalty for a Class Y felony is a prison sentence of 10 to 40 years or life, according to state statute.

Sanders said individual states must “step up and lead where our federal government is not” in terms of preventing the distribution of fentanyl and holding dealers accountable.

Her criticism of the federal government does not stand up under scrutiny.

In April 2022, DEA investigations led to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California indicting seven people who sold fentanyl-laced substances that resulted in deadly overdoses. The mandatory minimum sentence for each defendant is 20 years in federal prison, though a life sentence without parole is also a possibility.

The DEA also worked with the North Little Rock Police Department on an investigation that resulted in 18 indictments for trafficking drugs, including fentanyl, in November 2022.

Sanders also announced the appointment of “drug czar” Tom Fisher, a former overdose response strategy analyst for the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which covers Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Fisher was previously a Faulkner County deputy sheriff and the Arkansas investigation coordinator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

He said at the press conference that he sees his new position as “urgent, every day in every way,” with preventing overdoses and deaths as the most important goal.

“More harm than good”

Myra Woolfolk, the director of faith-based nonprofit Exodus.Life who is working on an addiction mitigation program in Jefferson County, declined to comment on the legislation.

The Matt Adams Foundation for Opioid Recovery believes the proposed legislation is “punitive” and will do “more harm than good to those struggling with substance use,” co-founder Heather Starbuck said in a Friday email.

Based in Fayetteville, the Matt Adams Foundation focuses on addiction destigmatization, education and recovery assistance. It was named for Starbuck’s fiancé who struggled with opioid addiction and died in 2017.

“As harm reductionists, we do not align with increased criminalization and instead believe in access to health care and life-saving harm reduction tools, education, and rehabilitation as core tactics to combating this epidemic, which we see as a public health crisis,” Starbuck said.

People living with addiction are most likely to be prosecuted under policies like the one introduced Friday, Starbuck said.

The Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act of 2015 created immunity for Arkansans possessing a controlled substance if they are found to do so while seeking help for someone experiencing an overdose. The legislation filed Friday “does not restrict or interfere with the rights and immunities provided in the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act,” both bills state.

Despite this law, “increased criminalization does naturally lead to both more stigmatization of those who use substances and heightened fear to reach out to emergency services at the scene of an overdose,” Starbuck said.

Opioid settlement funds

In a separate matter, Griffin said Friday that he is working with the Arkansas Municipal League and the Arkansas Association of Counties on how to spend some of the millions received from the settlement of opioid-related litigation.

Both organizations have set up a 24-member advisory panel.

“We are working seamlessly together, cooperatively, because we are the three individual participants in the opioid litigation,” Griffin said.

In September 2022, Arkansas received more than $2.5 million from three opioid distributors as part of a national $26 billion settlement. It was the first share of $216 million the state will receive under the agreement through annual payments over 18 years.

The money will be divided evenly between the state, counties and cities, as written in an October 2021 memorandum of understanding.

Additionally, the state directed $1 million of the $5.4 million it received from a 2021 multi-state settlement with consulting giant McKinsey & Co. to the state’s 49 drug treatment courts, then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced in October.

Adult Drug Courts are voluntary intervention programs for adults “​​involved in the criminal justice system due to underlying, unmanaged substance use disorders and are at increased risk of reoffending,” according to the Arkansas Judiciary website. The programs last 14 to 18 months and are an alternative to incarceration.

Rutledge said at the time that alternatives to incarceration lower rates of recidivism, help people receive treatment for addiction and reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons.

In December, Rutledge said the Legislature should decide how to spend a total of $140 million in opioid settlement funds that would be directed over time to the state’s general revenue fund. At the time, the state had received $20 million.

Arkansas secured roughly $430 million in settlement funding from opioid-related litigation between 2016 and 2022. State officials have said the money should be used for substance abuse treatment or mental health care programs.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.