Drug traffickers would be charged with murder in new bill; Gov. Sanders names drug czar

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 6,076 views 

Left to right: Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, AG Tim Griffin, Gov. Sarah Sanders, Drug Czar Tom Fisher, and Sen. Ben Gilmore.

Arkansas would charge drug dealers with murder if they deliver drugs that cause an overdose death, while those who traffic fentanyl to children would be charged with life in prison under legislation that was to be filed Friday (Feb. 17).

Gov. Sarah Sanders announced her support in a Friday press conference with the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, and Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Attorney General Tim Griffin.

Trafficking fentanyl would result in prison sentences of 25-60 years and a mandatory $1 million fine, Sanders said.

“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. It’s foolish, it’s dangerous, and under my leadership and administration, it will end,” she said.

At the same press conference, Sanders announced that Tom Fisher will be the state’s new drug czar and will coordinate Arkansas’ illicit drug response strategy. Fisher has worked as an overdose response strategy analyst with the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. He worked 17 years with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Arkansas and, earlier in his career, was a deputy sheriff in Faulkner County.

Sanders said 628 Arkansans died from drug overdoses during the last year when data was available. She said 107,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2021, and two-thirds had fentanyl in their system.

Griffin said the bill does not include any references to parole. He said the state must change its laws to deal with changing challenges. When methamphetamines were being produced using over-the-counter products, those products were moved behind the counter and the situation improved, but then illicit meth labs started making more powerful versions. When the prescription drug epidemic occurred, litigation and awareness efforts controlled the matter, so drug dealers started trafficking fentanyl. He said the current demand is being met by Chinese, Mexican, and Latin American suppliers.

“The bottom line is, our laws cannot be static,” he said. “They’ve got to be nimble. They’ve got to adapt to the changing times.”

The legislation is related but not part of a larger criminal justice reform package that Gazaway and Gilmore said they hope to file in the next couple of weeks. Gazaway said the Bureau of Legislative Research is finalizing the highly technical package of bills, which he said overhauls the parole system and involves a lot of sections of the Arkansas code.

Gazaway said the sponsors are evaluating what parts of the package should be separated or paired together. A bill related to human trafficking will run on its own. The two lawmakers were confident it will pass.

“We have great support from the governor and the attorney general, and our colleagues are ready to see violent offenders off the streets in their communities,” Gilmore said.