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‘Weapon of mass destruction’: Arizona House committee votes to crack down on fentanyl dealers

The committee voted in favor of a bill that would establish a level 1 felony punishment for selling a narcotic drug that results in the death of the user. But some Democrats say the bill is unconstitutional and broad.

PHOENIX (CN) — Ashley Dunn lay in a hospital bed on life support for three days before her mother gave the OK to pull the plug. Before that, she lay for 30 minutes on her apartment floor while her roommate waited to call 911. Before that, the 26-year-old from Prescott Valley bought what she thought was an oxycodone pill from a Glendale resident, who drove 97 miles to deliver it.

“She killed my child,” Ashley’s mother, Josephine Dunn, said to a group of Arizona lawmakers Monday afternoon.

Ashley Dunn died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021, along with 2,015 others in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Last year, 1,658 Arizonans died from an overdose involving the synthetic opioid, which the Center for Disease Prevention and Control says is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. More than 3,000 suffered non-fatal overdoses in the same year.

The deaths in Arizona reflect a nationwide crisis. More than 56,000 Americans died overdosing on fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in 2020, the CDC reported, and the numbers continue to rise.  Sheriffs from both Yavapai and Pinal Counties testified that Arizona is often the first stop in the drug’s journey through the country.

“Arizona is the funnel,” Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb said. “Nearly half of all drugs that come into America come through Arizona.

Lamb said users often don’t know that what they’re taking has fentanyl in it, but the dealers “know this is poison.”

Dunn’s story was one of six heard by the Arizona House health and human services committee, which voted to support a bill commonly referred to as The Ashley Dunn Act. No guests spoke in opposition.

“How can you be against saving lives,” Josephine Dunn asked.

HB 2469 would establish “drug trafficking homicide” as a new crime punishable on par with first degree murder. One would be found guilty of the level 1 felony if they are found to sell a narcotic drug that is a “contributing cause” of another person’s death. The bill specifies that the state doesn’t have to prove that the drug was the “sole and immediate” cause of death.

If found guilty, first-time offenders could face anywhere from 10 to 25 years in prison, and continued offenders can face up to 29 years.

The bill’s sponsor and committee Chair Steve Montenegro, a Republican from Goodyear, called fentanyl a “weapon of mass destruction.”

“Something needs to be done about this plague,” he said. “We can’t continue to ignore this any further.”

Committee members agreed the issue is one worth tackling, but some took issue with the bill’s far-reaching potential effects.

Most were concerned with how it might affect those who suffer from addiction rather than the dealers that the bill targets.

State Representative Matt Gress, a Republican from Phoenix, said he doesn’t want victims of the fentanyl crisis to suffer under the potential law.

“How should this committee balance the hardened criminals that the cartel is using versus folks who are under the grip of fentanyl and are dealing to support a habit?” he asked Lamb. “Should we make a distinction between the two?”

“There is a balance in law enforcement,” Lamb replied. “We don’t want to put the wrong people behind bars. We understand that certain people are trying to feed into that addiction and sharing pills with one another. I don’t believe that’s what this bill [is] designed to do.

“When you’re actively out trying to sell fentanyl pills or a Xanax pill that you know has fentanyl in it, you are one of those dealers, and you are one of those people that are causing the poisoning of American lives," he said.


Robin Holliday, whose son died at 36 of a fentanyl overdose in 2019, said she doesn’t care who sells the drug.

“If you choose to sell a drug that you know [is lethal], you are responsible for what happens with that drug,” she told the committee.

Her son bought a pill from someone in his apartment complex while suffering an anxiety attack. He didn’t know, Holliday said, that the pill contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.

“Nothing happened to those people,” she said.

Others worried that the bill would allow suspected dealers to be punished without due process.

“It says the state is not required to prove that the sale of the dangerous drug or narcotic was the sole and immediate cause of the other person’s death,” Representative Patty Contreras, a Democrat from Phoenix, said as she cast her vote. “That just sounds like it’s not very constitutional that we can put somebody behind bars if we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person did this.”

Dunn said the reason for the language is that overdoses often contain more than one drug, and each will show up on a death certificate.

“The death certificate for my daughter says marijuana and fentanyl,” she said outside the meeting room.

Because it may not be clear which of the multiple drugs in someone’s system is the one that actually killed them, the bill instead targets anyone who sold the user a drug that may have contributed to the death.

Contreras voted yes, but the state representative said she looks forward to fixing some of the language she considers problematic.

Mitch Dunn, Ashley's father, was bothered by the committee’s hang up on what he perceived as minute details.

“Every time they ask a question about the verbiage or the constitutionality, somebody’s dying,” he said after the meeting.

The CDC reports that 150 people die of a fentanyl overdose in the U.S. every day — about six deaths per hour.

“Thirty-six people have died since we’ve been sitting in that room,” Josephine Dunn said.

But State Representative Alma Hernandez, a Democrat from Tucson, said the spent time is valuable to perfect a bill that otherwise could have severe consequences.

“We’re looking at a bill that would truly determine someone’s life,” she said. “So, I do believe it’s important to discuss.”

Hernandez voted no.

State Representative Amish Shah, a Democrat from Phoenix, took issue with the bill putting drug trafficking homicide at the same level as first degree murder.

“It falls honestly closer to the definition of manslaughter because it’s reckless and it resulted in your death,” he said.  “The other category is more — I sat there and I plotted to get you, and then I went and did it.”

Yavapai County Sherriff David Rhodes said that in most cases, there is intentionality behind selling fentanyl because the dealer knows it can kill the user, so selling it can be considered an intent to kill.

Dawn Petit saw it that way when her daughter, Carter, died of an overdose in 2021.

“Carter’s death stemmed from one individual,” Petit said. “The dealer.”

Still, both Shah and State Representative Christopher Mathis, a Democrat from Phoenix, voted against the bill because it lacks clarity regarding intentionality.

Despite dissent from them and Hernandez, the bill was sent to the House floor by a 6-3 vote.

“I feel optimistic,” Josephine Dunn said. “I hope that lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, can work together to just save lives. This isn’t a retribution bill, this is a way to stop deaths.”

She said she hopes the bill will stop people from doing what was done to her daughter.

“The person who killed my daughter will never pay unless she kills another person,” she said. “If this law is in effect and she kills another person, she will be prosecuted for the killing.”

The bill was originally written as a declaration of a public health crisis regarding the sale of fentanyl over the U.S.-Mexico border, but a “strike everything” amendment from Montenegro, the bill's sponsor, made it what it is now. A nearly identical bill was heard in a House judiciary committee meeting last year, but it didn't make it out of committee.

It’s unclear when this bill will be heard by the full House.

Categories: Government Health Politics

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