HomeTop StoriesIf someone dies from a fentanyl overdose, Arizona should punish the dealer

If someone dies from a fentanyl overdose, Arizona should punish the dealer

The coverage of a Mesa police officer who passes out from an overdose in his patrol car certainly, if sensationally, highlights the crisis that opioids, particularly fentanyl, are causing.

But how best to tackle the problem has been elusive.

Remember the special legislative session in early 2018 that tightened opioid prescriptions?

Restrictions that didn’t slow the number of overdose deaths, but created their own problems, such as blocking access to relief for chronic pain patients.

Last year, a candidate for attorney general—a former Arizona Supreme Court justice, no less—went so far as to propose the death penalty for fentanyl traffickers.

Michael K. Williams’ overdose is a lesson

Actor Michael K. Williams died of an overdose in 2021. He was 54.

During this session, the state legislature passed two bills calling for mandatory prison terms for convictions for possession, distribution, transfer, sale or manufacture of fentanyl.

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Governor Katie Hobbs vetoed both bills, objecting to sweeping penalties, including from users, rather than focusing closely on manufacturers of the drug.

Are we perhaps thinking too much about it?

Earlier this month, a New York federal district court sentenced a drug dealer to 10 years in prison for selling fentanyl-laced heroin to actor Michael K. Williams, who rose to fame on the HBO series “The Wire” and died of an overdose.

The judge said she wanted the length of the sentence to send a message both to the defendant – who had been dealing drugs for years and continued to do so after Williams’ death – and others who sell fentanyl.

“It has to stop,” she said.

The judge understood that correctly. But the sentencing was also about punishment.

Mandatory criminal laws don’t work

Just a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal.

Just a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal.

Arizona has enough laws on the books to hold accountable those whose actions harm others.

We can’t and don’t have to go after everyone.

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Certainly not as a deterrent.

As critics such as the libertarian think tank Cato Institute point out, harsh mandatory criminal laws do nothing to dilute the effects of narcotics.

The institute pointed to 1,500% spike in methamphetamine deaths in the United States between 2006 and 2021, following voter-approved Proposition 301 in Arizona that mandated mandatory minimum prison terms for the possession, transfer, sale, distribution, or production of meth.

But we can set a standard: if you sell, distribute or otherwise knowingly give someone fentanyl and that person takes it and dies, you will be prosecuted.

Hold sellers accountable if someone dies

Most people, especially those who sell the drug, know that even a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal.

The point is that when someone’s actions result in the loss of life, there must be accountability.

It can prompt law enforcement agencies to commit to investigating the direct source of the drug(s) in a fatal overdose and prompt prosecutors to vigorously pursue charges when there is sufficient evidence.

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It is an acknowledgment that accidental death can also involve a crime.

Another view: Will a cop’s overdose wake us up?

There are statutes for the sale, possession, production and transportation of dangerous drugs.

And for danger. And negligent murder. They are all crimes that prosecutors may consider before reaching a conviction.

And judges can take aggravating or mitigating circumstances into account when weighing sentences.

Fentanyl kills too many in Arizona

Granted, not all cases work out as neatly for authorities as the death by overdose of Michael K. Williams. Aside from a criminal past, the defendant’s drug dealing with the actor was captured by surveillance cameras, according to court documents.

The number of confirmed opioid deaths has risen more than 70% since the legislature passed the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, about 2,000 per year.

Those trends are similar in Maricopa County, where 6 in 10 drug-related deaths last year involved fentanyl, often in combination with methamphetamine.

Pursuing criminal charges in those approximately 1,300 cases may not make a dent in drug demand or supply. But they would be one step closer to justice.

And that can’t hurt.

Reach Abe Kwok at [email protected]. On X, formerly Twitter: @abekwok.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Fentanyl dealers should be prosecuted in overdose deaths

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