Arizona bill would charge fentanyl dealers with first-degree murder for overdose deaths

A new bill in the Arizona Senate would have drug dealers be charged with first-degree murder for overdose deaths linked to fentanyl.
Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 7:58 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - First-degree murder for dealing fentanyl? That’s what’s being proposed in an Arizona Senate bill that just passed out of its first committee. It would allow first-degree murder charges for sellers or dealers of fentanyl if it results in an overdose death. But this comes with strong opinions on both sides.

Everyone can agree the fentanyl crisis is terrible and fentanyl is a dangerous and deadly drug. For families who have lost a child to it, the proposal sounds like a step in the right direction. But others say it may actually criminalize the wrong people and be difficult to prove intent.

When you think of first-degree murder, you’re likely thinking of a stabbing or a shooting. “It has the same potential consequences as a gun,” said East Valley mom Lindsay Taylor. Taylor is talking about a pill. A pill that killed her 17-year-old son Alex less than two years ago. “He had gone down a pretty rough path and overdosed on fentanyl in May of 2021, so just two weeks shy of his high school graduation,” said Taylor. “I know for a fact he never wanted to die from that.”

Taylor is not alone. This crisis prompted state Sen. Anthony Kern, a Republican from Glendale, to introduce Senate Bill 1029, which would make dealing or selling fentanyl punishable by first-degree murder if it results in an overdose death. “Then that is a class 1 felony subject to the death penalty, life in prison,” said Kern in a committee meeting.

The bill was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and it passed with a 4 to 3 vote along party lines. Recovering addict Kara Jansen spoke to the senators. “We can’t incarcerate this problem away. People need support from the community,” she said at the podium.

But for Taylor, a mother who lost a son that was a competitive gymnast and overall good kid, she feels a first-degree murder charge for her son’s dealer would have felt like more justice. “You know that you’re dealing death when you’re dealing fentanyl, so I think when it comes to this specifically, this drug, it absolutely needs harsh punishment,” Taylor said.

The question, though, is how would this work legally? Attorney Jason Lamm sees some red flags. “In theory, the law would target high-level drug dealers and the cartel, but at a practical level the only individuals who will likely be punished are addicts who share drugs with other addicts who then overdose,” said Lamm.

Then there are dealers who don’t intend to sell fentanyl. “I think it would be a challenge for prosecutors to show intent for let’s say a cocaine dealer who sold cocaine that was unknowingly laced with fentanyl,” Lamm said.

While it has opinions on both sides, Taylor just wants to do what she can in her son’s honor. “The way you move forward is you use that to try to save other families from going through the same thing,” said Taylor.

Taylor said to put this in perspective - she knows a lot more families who have lost kids to fentanyl overdoses than gun violence. That’s how prevalent it’s become. The bill heads to the Rules Committee before it hits the Senate floor.