Bill boosting sentences for fentanyl sales meets resistance

PHOENIX (AP) — A proposal in the Arizona House to impose mandatory five-year minimum sentences on people who sell any amount of the opioids fentanyl or heroin appeared in major trouble Wednesday, even according to majority Republicans on the committee that heard the proposal.

The bill by GOP Rep. Steve Pierce of Prescott brought out emotional testimony from family members of young people who died of overdoses. The editors of The Daily Courier newspaper in Prescott testified that they are pushing the bill because of rising deaths and the apparent lack of harsh penalties for people who provided the deadly drugs.

“The challenge here that I see is that in the past 14 months very few of the people who’ve been caught with these drugs that they’re selling have done time in jail and prison,” Tim Wiederaenders, the Courier's senior news editor, told the House Judiciary Committee. “If they have, and it is just a handful, it is because of other drugs they have been caught with, for example methamphetamine, which carries a mandatory sentence.”

But opponents of mandatory minimum sentences argued that setting base sentences for any sales offense ignores the fact that many users sell a small amount of drugs to make enough cash to support their own habits.

Molly Gill of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums said such a law would remove any discretion from judges.

“Under this bill, if I sell one gram of heroin I am going to get a five-year mandatory sentence. If I bring in 50 pounds of heroin across the Arizona border, I am going to get a five-year mandatory sentence,” Gill said. “I think we all recognize that those two people have done very different things. They have very different culpability levels.”

All six Republicans on the committee voted to advance the measure, but many voiced major concerns with and said they would not support it if it were not amended. All four committee Democrats voted no.

“I have an issue of continuing to go down the path of putting substance users in prison,” Republican Rep. Bret Roberts said while voting to advance the bill. “We need to do something to narrow the scope of this bill – to possibly just limiting (it to) manufacture.”

GOP Rep. Walt Blackman, who has made criminal justice and sentencing reform a major issue, also voted to advance the bill but said he would be a strong opponent on a floor vote if it isn't significantly narrowed.

He noted that the state's prison population lacks significant access to drug rehabilitation programs, and inmates are often released with the same problem that put them behind bars in the first place.

“I do not believe this bill addresses the problem of substance abuse,” Blackman said. “I believe this bill is too wide and needs to be narrowed.”

The bill did get some strong GOP backing, with Rep. Jay Lawrence calling out the “goody-two-shoe-over-the-top testimony" from some opponents.

Pierce, the bill sponsor, said he too believes mandatory sentencing needs to be reviewed. But he said fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that in tiny amounts can be lethal, is another issue.

"Fentanyl is dangerous, it’s a killer. A small amount can kill you," Pierce said. “It is not like other drugs at all.”

The bill now goes to the full House after a routine constitutional review.