Tougher punishments in fentanyl crimes hard sell in Legislature
Meth vs. Fentanyl in the state of Arizona
Of the six people arrested and charged with selling fentanyl in Yavapai County since February 2018, none have been sentenced to serve time in prison.
There are various reasons for this — including that some of the cases have yet to be concluded — but one factor is that the legal penalty for selling highly-potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are the same as selling most other drugs in Arizona.
“If you’re selling a small amount of drugs, it’s going to be probation eligible,” Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said.
The only drug this rule doesn’t apply to in Arizona is methamphetamines.
“If you’re selling meth, it doesn’t matter the amount, it’s a mandatory minimum five years in prison,” Polk said.
CRACKING DOWN ON METH
In 2006, Arizona legislators passed a bill imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of manufacturing or distributing methamphetamines — no matter the quantity they were found to be in possession of at the time of their arrest.
The bill is straightforward and strict. Anyone caught making, selling or transporting methamphetamines, or found in possession of equipment or chemicals used to make the dangerous drug, is required to face anywhere from five to 15 years in prison.
For repeat offenders, the sentencing range is 10 to 20 years. This compares to the sentencing range of three to 10 years for other dangerous drugs where a threshold amount is required to prove sales.
“Meth was everywhere then,” Polk said. “It was across Arizona. It was across the United States.”
Crime rates were spiking and meth was driving the trend, she said.
“Meth and crime go hand in hand,” Polk said.
The bill was the state’s way of addressing the epidemic, hoping it would deter people from even dabbling in the sale of meth knowing they could be facing a significant amount of time in prison even as a first offender.
About a year later, between the new law and a statewide education campaign focused on how destructive meth is, the drug-fighting effort appeared to work. Crime rates significantly declined over the following several years and the amount of meth seizures dwindled as demand decreased — a trend that has since shifted (see accompanying article).
Having seen this success first hand, Polk began pushing the state to consider similar mandatory minimum prison sentences for the production, sale and transportation of heroin and fentanyl in 2018.
FENTANYL BILL FAILS
In January 2018, House Bill 2241 was introduced by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. The bill was essentially identical to the law in place for meth, requiring strict mandatory minimum prison sentences for heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl mimetic substances and carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
Polk testified in favor of the bill, telling lawmakers that it would provide prosecutors with the same “tool in the toolbox” to address the illegal opioid crisis in Arizona as the 2006 bill did for meth.
However, after narrowly passing through the House, the bill died in the state Senate.
Polk met with legislative leaders early in the 2019 session asking them to consider the same fentanyl bill that failed in 2018, but was told “this year is not the year,” she said.
“I was told that there was not an appetite at the Legislature for imposing harsher penalties for crimes in general,” Polk said.
Rather, the movement is more for criminal justice reform.
“There’s people at the Legislature and there’s a belief that folks who are selling drugs are simply users to support their habit,” Polk said. “I don’t believe that’s true. Not for the dealers. To run a drug cartel, to run a drug trafficking organization, you have to have your wits about you. You can’t be a heroin user who’s in a constant state of depressed functioning and run a successful fentanyl ring.”
When asked where they stood regarding harsher penalties for heroin and fentanyl, Rep. Noel Campbell and Senate President Karen Fann, both R-Prescott, both said they would support such a bill.
“I’d probably be in favor of that,” Campbell said.
“If there was someone else who dropped a bill that would make our streets a little safer, then yes, I would help guide that bill through and make it successful,” Fann said.
Though Fann said she is too busy as Senate President to look into sponsoring a bill like that herself, Campbell said he would give a measure some thought if encouraged to.
“If the county attorney brought it to me and asked me to do that, I would certainly consider it,” he said.
Neither Campbell nor Fann have heard of any fentanyl bills coming down the pike from other legislators this year.
The Daily Courier attempted to speak with Farnsworth, the sponsor of the original bill, to see where his thoughts on the matter are currently, but he could not be reached before press time.
Polk said she intends to build a stronger case for why a fentanyl bill is needed and return to the legislature with it next year.
“I think an effective drug policy consists of all the facets to putting the right people into treatment and putting the right people into prison,” Polk said. “With this fentanyl problem, I think it’s just astonishing what we’re seeing. One dose kills and anybody who’s going to be involved in selling it or spreading that poison on the street, I think they should face mandatory prison.”