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story.lead_photo.caption U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., uses a salt shaker to illustrate that a similar quantity of the drug fentanyl would kill thousands of people. Cotton and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge held a news conference Wednesday to discuss their efforts to fight opioid problems. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Echoing a recent call by President Donald Trump, both U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Wednesday that they were open to the idea of executing drug dealers as a method of combating the opioid crisis.

Specifically, the comments from the two Republicans were aimed at pushers of fentanyl, an especially cheap and lethal synthetic opioid that has been linked to a rising number of overdoses. A Tuesday news conference at the attorney general's Little Rock offices highlighted a bill Cotton has proposed to increase the federal minimum sentences for possession of fentanyl.

Asked if he supported the president's idea to use the highest form of punishment on drug dealers, Cotton was unequivocal.

"I support the death penalty for people who are dealing in fentanyl," Cotton said. "They're imposing a death sentence on the young men and women in our societies."

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 169 opioid-related overdose deaths in Arkansas in 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that at least 800 people died from 2013-2016 in the state.

While Cotton's legislation doesn't include an expansion of the federal death penalty, he said U.S district attorneys should be allowed to more aggressively seek that punishment for drug dealers under an existing federal law known as the Kingpin Statute, as well as through laws allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for slayings connected to drug crimes.

No one has been given a federal death sentence for drug-related crimes that did not also involve killing since the punishment was restored in 1988, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In a memo sent to U.S. attorneys last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged the prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in certain cases, including against criminals "dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs."

Under current Arkansas law, the death penalty is allowed only as a punishment for capital murder and treason.

Rutledge said Tuesday that she would consider supporting a change allowing Arkansas prosecutors to seek death for traffickers.

"The sort of potency that we've heard about today and that we heard about on a regular basis with regard to fentanyl, deserve to have an equally potent penalty to go along with it," Rutledge said. "That's something I would entertain visiting with our legislators about."

Flanking Cotton and Rutledge at the news conference were state law enforcement and health officials, as well as parents of Arkansas children who died of overdoses. Afterward, the parents spoke highly of the responses put forward by officials, including Cotton's push for harsher punishments and Rutledge's recent lawsuit against three pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioids.

However, any push to expand the death penalty in Arkansas is likely to face a torrent of public criticism, even if most Arkansans support the punishment. The state is one year removed from the international headlines it sparked in attempts to execute eight inmates over a two-week period. The state executed four.

In an email, Rita Sklar, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, called the statements by Rutledge and Cotton "barbaric."

"The death penalty is a broken process that needs to be abolished, not expanded -- and the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the use of the death penalty in cases where there has been no murder by the convicted individual," Sklar said.

Furdona Brasfield, the director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the proposal was "very sad," and would likely lead to more poor people and members of minority groups being given the harshest sentences, rather than the pharmaceutical executives who make and market opioids.

A spokesman for the state prison system declined to comment on the possibility of carrying out lethal injections for drug dealers.

In a statement, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would have to see the specifics of a plan, while noting that "generally, the death penalty should be reserved for the most violent and heinous offenses."

For one victim of the opioid crisis, the worst possible punishment did not seem excessive for proven "mass distributors."

Last June in Fayetteville, Gina Allgaier's son Tristan Thomas died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 21. After attending the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville his freshman year, she said, he moved to Seattle, where his addiction "spiraled," before he returned to Arkansas.

"I don't think it's any different than someone coming into a bank and shooting people, or at a school and shooting people," Allgaier said of fentanyl traffickers.

After her son's death, Allgaier started the advocacy group in Bentonville, Speakup About the Drugs. She and another parent involved in the group, Andy Agar of Little Rock, attended the news conference Wednesday. In addition to tougher penalties, the pair said, there is a need for resources for more treatment, psychiatrists and patient beds.

Cotton, in his talk, agreed, saying, "People who are genuinely addicted to drugs, who made a wrong turn in life, who are not out there dealing on the streets poisoning their own communities, we should get them care and we should not lock them up."

But Dr. J. Carlos Roman, a pain-management specialist who serves on the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission and has been outspoken on the opioid crisis, said focusing on tougher punishments for dealers is the wrong track to take.

"They're missing the main part of the problem," Roman said.

Resources would be better spent on helping people get medical treatment, he said, rather than tracking down criminals. Squeezing the black market by locking up dealers would only force addicts to go to more drastic measures to get a fix, he added.

Roman, who was appointed to the Medical Marijuana Commission by the Republican Senate president pro tempore, Jonathan Dismang of Searcy, made a note of saying he wasn't trying to be critical of either Rutledge or Cotton. He said political solutions don't fully address the complicated nature of the crisis.

Of the two, only Rutledge is up for re-election this year. Her opponent in the November election, Democrat Mike Lee, did not return a request for comment.

Metro on 04/05/2018

Print Headline: Cotton, Rutledge back death for drug dealers


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  • TimberTopper
    April 5, 2018 at 7:56 a.m.

    Life and a day would be cheaper on us tax payers, but they are not concerned about those little things. Calling for the death penalty gets more news coverages.

  • hah406
    April 5, 2018 at 8:20 a.m.

    Drugs are one of the purest forms of capitalism that exists. It is a pure supply and demand issue, and the answer doesn't lie in reduction in the supply. Reducing the supply of hydrocodone and oxycodone is what got us to fentanyl. It is much cheaper to treat addicts and reduce the demand, not to mention more humane. But as long as their is a demand, someone will be willing to fill the void with a supply, no matter the risk.

  • purplebouquet
    April 5, 2018 at 9:37 a.m.

    Considering the average wait time for execution is decades and few death row candidates are indeed executed, how is t his going to help anything? We know that the death sentence doesn't deter crime; let's not add to this very expensive, highly controversial and ineffective practice.

  • Packman
    April 5, 2018 at 11:04 a.m.

    Hey Timber - The death penalty is only so costly due to the countless appeals that mainly take place only so useful idiots like you can talk about how much it costs.
    We need a nationwide death penalty for drug dealers AND murderers with a 12 month cap on appeals. Provide the accused a speedy trail as guaranteed by law and hang those found guilty by a jury of their peers in public within 12 months of the guilty verdict.
    Hey hah - Would you mind applying your same logic to gutting the 2A by "banning" sporting rifles ("But as long as their is a demand, someone will be willing to fill the void with a supply, no matter the risk")?

  • mrcharles
    April 5, 2018 at 11:13 a.m.

    hah I am about sick and tired by your kind mentioning logic, reason and thinking thoughts. Sound bites are what get people like our AG and norman bates stand in elected. If thinking becomes the norm, what will the gop do ? I mean how can you beat the sound bites of faux commentary & sex abuse network, or Rush saying Obama is against Joseph Kony and his christian army of God- well isnt every good muslim?

    I must admit no love for the dealers, as the old Steppenwolf song mentions [ I have both a gun and my grandpappys straight razor], but the solutions that involve improving the overall health and welfare to the world of primates as now exist is the way to go as we all know, even if sound bite gop types are stifled in their bluster. Yet those solutions mean we are soft or socialist , no matter their evidence of working.

    Our present drug laws just make dealers and their overlords rich, make corruption the norm, and of course the crime it takes to obtain money for the sweet dreams is what makes islands of despair and no hope.

    And what does the proof that death penalty doesnt reduce crime mean? Those who love it , are like the days of the old west, nothing to do so lets go watch a killing or get off on the thought of killing . After all we all go to certain death.

    Glad no one mentioned the country that is known as in love with incarceration and executions... some say the country that that great merican trump said is not so innocent. To give him credit only a person like him could say such a thing and not be smeared by the troglodytes... as before their deity they know if Obama has said that their would be mass rallies of white supremacist in southern towns polishing their statutes of traitors.

    I believe maryland in the early days of this most christian nation [ see extermination of the pagan natives] had the death penalty for 3rd offense of blasphemy.

  • Illinoisroy
    April 5, 2018 at 12:19 p.m.

    TC & LR, plus many of the posters, sound like good christian people!

    "They're imposing a death sentence on the young men and women in our societies." I wonder if we can use this same rationale for punishing political types that place our children serving in the armed forces in danger?


  • TimberTopper
    April 5, 2018 at 2:08 p.m.

    Packy, it would take much more time and effort to change the law to your way of thinking and probably would get held up at some point to where it would just go away. I know you have probably done loads of research on the subject however, your thought process and answer to the problem is about as viable as a fart in a tornado.

  • dumblikeme
    April 5, 2018 at 2:22 p.m.

    Now if we can just find a place to buy the drugs needed to execute the drug dealers...

  • Packman
    April 5, 2018 at 2:32 p.m.

    Hey Timber - "....your thought process and answer to the problem is about as viable as a fart in a tornado." Much like those that recommend repeal of the 2A, confiscation of sporting rifles, confiscation of all autoloading firarms, mandatory registration of all 300 million guns currently in the US, or letting teenagers dictate policy to the masses.

    April 5, 2018 at 3:52 p.m.

    Misguided mindless authoritarian political clap trap. No effect on problem. Big pharma thrives on addiction. It is a business model. But peon peddlers get a through and final dose of Amerikan jUSTICE.