A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sanders endorses enhanced penalties for drug dealers, traffickers

(From left) Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, Attorney General Tim Griffin and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speak to reporters at the Arkansas State Capitol on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.
Daniel Breen
(From left) Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, Attorney General Tim Griffin and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speak to reporters at the Arkansas State Capitol on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders says she supports a new bill which would allow courts to sentence certain drug dealers to life in prison for causing an overdose death.

Sanders made the announcement Friday alongside Attorney General Tim Griffin and Senate Bill 283's Republican co-sponsors, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould. The governor said the enhanced sentences are necessary due to a nationwide spike in drug overdoses brought on largely by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“Arkansas will charge drug dealers with murder if they deliver drugs that cause an overdose. For the most heinous drug dealers, those who traffic fentanyl to children, we will charge them with life in prison. And for anyone caught trafficking fentanyl… Arkansas will put you in jail for 25 to 60 years and impose a mandatory $1 million fine,” Sanders said.

The enhanced sentences would apply to Arkansans who knowingly deliver fentanyl or fentanyl-laced heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or analogues or similar counterfeit substances which then causes an overdose death. If passed, it would create new criminal charges of aggravated death by delivery, death by delivery in the first degree, and death by delivery in the second degree.

Aggravated death by delivery, the most serious charge, would be an unclassified felony. First-degree death by delivery would be a Class Y felony, and second-degree death by delivery would be a Class A felony. The bill does not mention whether the death penalty would be applicable to those convicted of aggravated death by delivery.

Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin blamed the nationwide uptick in overdose deaths on the Biden Administration’s border security policies. Griffin said the state has had success in restricting legal sources of opioid painkillers, but illicit drugs still remain a problem.

“There’s still a demand but the supply’s not there, so who steps in? The same folks, the Chinese and the Mexicans and the South Americans. That’s what’s happening here. And they don’t give a rip about any of you or your families,” Griffin said, citing a similar law passed in North Carolina in 2019.

Sanders responded to potential criticism of the effort, citing the 628 overdose deaths in Arkansas in 2021.

“To anyone who claims these 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 my administration it will end,” Sanders said.

Sanders also introduced the state’s new quote-unquote “drug czar,” Tom Fisher, who will coordinate Arkansas’ entire illicit drug response. Fisher, a longtime official with the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration, said his experience at all levels of law enforcement will serve him well in his new role.

“I had the opportunity to work with state and local officers, investigators and public health officials to find ways to make communities safer,” he said. “Governor, as your Drug Director, I can only describe the manner in which we’re about to go in as urgent.”

Fisher said he will focus on overdose deaths in his position as Arkansas Drug Director, as well as prevention, education and outreach to communities. He succeeds Boyce Hamlet, who was appointed by then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson last August.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.