Arizona lawmakers looking to address public health crisis from fentanyl passing through Mexico border


Hannah Saunders


The Arizona Legislature is considering a bill that would declare fentanyl coming through the state’s southern border as a public health crisis and would require the state’s Department of Health Services (ADHS) to do all within its authority to stop the issue. House Bill 2469 passed the House through a narrow vote of 31-28 in March, and currently awaits further action in the Senate.

Under HB 2469, the legislature would declare that Arizona public policy includes protecting the state from drug cartels that threaten the public safety, health, and general welfare of the people. It would also declare that overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids are primarily driven by illegally manufactured fentanyl.

“What this bill is trying to do is that it ensures that Arizona is committed to using its sovereign authority whenever possible at the border,” said Steve Montenegro (R – Maricopa), sponsor of the bill. “Arizona is in fact ground zero for fentanyl, and the trafficking that’s coming across our border of this deadly weapon.”

ADHS opioid data shows that over five people die each day from an opioid overdose in the state. In 2017, a statewide public health emergency was issued as an effort to reduce opioid overdose deaths, however the issue has worsened across the nation.

As of April 4th, Arizona has seen 827 verified non-fatal opioid overdoses, 93 confirmed opioid-related deaths, and 1,806 emergency or inpatient visits involving a suspected opioid overdose. ADHS data also shows that 78% of EMS and law enforcement responses for suspected overdoses involved the administration of naloxone to reverse the overdose.

Montenegro emphasized the rates of opioid-related deaths and overdoses, while connecting them to illicitly manufactured fentanyl that is being distributed through illegal markets. Under the bill, state laws would have to be implemented to protect Arizona’s sovereign power against any unlawful invasions at the Arizona-Mexico border, while defining unlawful invasions to include the trafficking of fentanyl.

“I believe sincerely that this [bill] is going to allow us as a state to employ tools that we need to continue to work together to exercise our sovereignty,” Montenegro said.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is a research and advocacy organization that focuses on human rights in the Americas. Under a WOLA update from March 24th, the organization stated that cross-border fentanyl trafficking is shifting from California to Arizona. WOLA highlighted ADHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s visit to the Mariposa port of entry located in Nogales on March 21st. Mayorkas celebrated the launch of an operation known as Operation Blue Lotus, which targets cross-border fentanyl trafficking.

The Nogales border crossing recently had a multi-energy portal scanner, which is non-intrusive inspection technology, installed and is one of two that ADHS expects to install in that area. According to WOLA, Mayorkas stated how from March 13th to 19th, the devices led to 18 narcotic seizures, including over 900 pounds of fentanyl, over 700 pounds of methamphetamines, and over 100 pounds of cocaine.

A three-year long investigation targeting the Sinaloa Drug Cartel led to a massive seizure and numerous arrests this past February. To date, the operation arrested over 150 individuals on charges, and seized over 4.5 million fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl, 66 kilograms of fentanyl powder, 138 kilograms of cocaine, 3,100 pounds of methamphetamine, 35 kilograms of heroin, 49 firearms, and over $2 million.

“The fentanyl seized represents more than 30 million potentially lethal doses,” stated a press release from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). “This investigation is part of DEA’s work in defeating the criminal drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco, who continue to drive addiction and drug poisonings in communities nationwide, threatening the safety and health of Americans. The Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for nearly all deadly narcotics flooding into Arizona.”

The DEA stated that criminal cartels mass-produce fake pills that resemble prescription drugs— like Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Percocet, Xanax, and Adderall—that actually contain fentanyl. The agency also noted that criminal cartels are hiding fentanyl in other drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin, and that any illicit fentanyl is dangerous and can be deadly.  

While all committee members agreed that cross-border fentanyl trafficking is a major issue that needs to be addressed, Sen. Eva Burch (D – Maricopa) brought up concerns about what specifically the legislation would require ADHS to do.

“I have significant concerns about the vagueness of this language prescribing one of our departments to do everything within its power without any definition of what that means, or any direction about how to accomplish this ask,” Burch said.

State of Reform reached out to Arizona Public Health Association (AZPHA) Executive Director Will Humble for further insight, who said that ADHS’s authority is limited to the regulations they have for licensed healthcare facilities. He believes the bill’s requirements might be more appropriate for a different state agency.

Humble said this bill may require ADHS to view and update their licensing regulations to be more stringent on prescribing opioids, which would be an indirect intervention because it would only cover prescription opioids rather than illegal fentanyl.

“AHCCCS [Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System] has arguably more ability to influence the epidemic by increasing their network of opioid treatment options and capacity,” Humble told State of Reform. “This bill would make more sense if it were to challenge the Arizona National Guard or Arizona Homeland Security with these nebulous directives.”