Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge say they’re hoping to stem the death toll from opioid overdose through both lawmaking and litigation.
Cotton last month co-sponsored a bill with five other Republicans to lower the amount of the synthetic opioid fentanyl needed to impose mandatory minimum sentences for possession. Roughly a week later, Rutledge announced a civil lawsuit targeting three drug companies she said have engaged in deceptive marketing practices leading to higher opioid prescription rates.
“The prescribing rate in Arkansas is the second-highest in the country,” Rutledge said. “Arkansas ranks first in the nation in ages 12 to 17 for prescription drug use and misuse. Reversing this trend is a top priority of all the officials here today.”
Rutledge and Cotton were present for a press conference outlining their cooperation in combating the opioid epidemic, especially in regards to fentanyl and similarly potent drugs, which, both said, are contributing to the rising rate of overdose.
Both made their remarks surrounded by law enforcement officers and family members of overdose victims.
“It’s time to put a stop to this. We have to get care for those young men and women in our society who succumb to the ravages of addiction, but we have to get tough on the drug dealers who peddle this kind of poison on our streets,” Cotton said.
Cotton said fentanyl accounted for roughly one-third of all overdose deaths in the United States last year, and that laws have not kept up with the threat posed by the drug. Rutledge agreed with Cotton that greater inter-agency cooperation is needed in rural communities.
“When we talked about some of the impact of these drugs and where we’re seeing more fentanyl and heroin in the state, it’s been in our small communities,” Rutledge said. “Our law enforcement agencies with very limited resources are the ones having to deal with this crisis on a daily basis.”
Cotton said stiffer minimum sentences would be more effective in deterring fentanyl dealers, rather than punishing them.
“My hope would be that it would actually not lead to higher rates of incarceration because it would send the right signal to drug dealers, that if they’re going to peddle marijuana or cocaine or heroin, it’s one thing,” Cotton said. “But if they’re going to peddle fentanyl, because it would increase the penalty so significantly… they should think twice.”
Another possible deterrent for fentanyl dealers, the death penalty, has been floated by President Donald Trump in the past. Rutledge said, on the state level, she would leave that decision up to lawmakers.
“That’s something I would entertain visiting with our legislators about, if they wanted to have some sort of sentencing guidelines parallel to or similar to federal sentencing guidelines,” Rutledge said.
Sen. Cotton cited federal statutes, including the “felony murder rule” in which prosecutors can seek to impose the death penalty if a murder is committed during the commission of a felony, as reasons for his support of the penalty for fentanyl dealers.
“I support the death penalty for people who are dealing in fentanyl. They’re imposing a death sentence on the young men and women in our societies,” Cotton said. “I think, if necessary, we should give U.S. attorneys the power to apply it more broadly”