To Halt the Surge in Fentanyl Deaths, Arizona Must Target the Distribution Networks

January 27, 2023

By Pat Nolan |

The surge in deaths from Fentanyl overdoses is overwhelming communities across the country. Fentanyl is responsible for at least 70 percent of all drug deaths in the U.S. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States suffered more fentanyl-related deaths than gun- and auto-related deaths combined last year. And it is the number one cause of death among U.S. adults, aged 18-45.

Here in Arizona, the Fentanyl crisis is particularly acute. Fentanyl flows easily into our state across our southern border. Until Washington gets serious about controlling it, Arizona has to take decisive action now to disrupt the supply lines of the drug cartels.

In the rush to “do something” about this very real crisis, some well-intentioned legislators have proposed HB2167, which would spend precious law enforcement resources on seeking murder sentences for individual sellers rather than going after large traffickers. Certainly, we want to punish those who support their drug habit by selling small amounts of Fentanyl, and current Arizona law sends a person who provides illicit drugs to prison for up to 25 years. That is a substantial sentence.

HB2167 would go further so that if a person dies after receiving the drugs – even if it is not “the immediate cause of death” – the person who gave them the drug would be sentenced by the judge as a murderer.

This is problematic because the cartels often press Fentanyl into pills to make them like prescription pills. They do this because Fentanyl is cheaper than the ingredients of the real prescription drugs. And profit is what motivates the cartels. Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who tracks the opioid crisis wrote, “You don’t need land, good weather, peasant labor, processing of crops, etc. Instead, you can whip it up in a small lab, and every gram is 50 times as strong as heroin.”

It is impossible for a buyer to know if the drugs they buy also contain Fentanyl. HB2167 calls for sentencing the person who gave or sold these ersatz drugs as a murderer even if they were unaware that Fentanyl had been added. That could result in real injustice.

Take for example, your daughter goes away to college and falls in with friends who enjoy getting high. If she gave a pill to a friend who later died, your daughter could be sentenced as a murderer without the state having to prove that the drug caused the death! Certainly, your child deserves to be punished, and she can be imprisoned for up to 25 years without HB2167. But it would be wrong to punish her as a murderer with a much longer sentence.

The DEA’s top priorities are interdicting the traffic in Fentanyl and prosecuting the large drug trafficking organizations. But by including “small fish” as I explained above, HB2167 in its current form puts Arizona out of step with the DEA’s priorities. The House Judiciary Committee should amend HB2167 so that it aligns with the DEA by targeting resources to taking down the leaders of the large distribution networks, and putting them out of business. That is the most effective way to make our communities safer.

Pat Nolan lives in Prescott and is the founder of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice. He is a respected national leader on crime issues.

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