As fentanyl deaths soar in California, lawmakers are scrapping bills that would penalize dealers

As thousands of Californians die each year from fentanyl-fueled overdoses, a bitter battle has erupted in Sacramento over how lawmakers can hold dealers accountable without refilling state prisons and starting another “war on drugs.”

On one side of the debate, Republicans and moderate Democrats are calling for tougher criminal penalties for dealers who sell the deadly drug 50 times stronger than heroin and almost contributed 6,000 drug overdose deaths in California in 2021.

On the other side are left-leaning Democrats, who have spent the last decade reshaping the state’s criminal code to favor treatment and rehabilitation over lengthy prison terms, and are reluctant to pursue policies they fear will alienate blacks and browns could destroy communities.

Disagreement reached a boiling point this week at the state Capitol as Californians whose family members died from a fentanyl overdose packed a hearing room where Democrats rejected a bipartisan bill that would require a warning to convicted fentanyl dealers that they are charged with Could be charged with murder if they sell it again. Meanwhile, a Democratic lawmaker shelved several other bills to increase penalties for fentanyl traffickers.

“I was there during the crack cocaine epidemic, and it’s really very similar to the crack cocaine hysteria,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “And we rushed to find a solution, rather than looking at it from both a public health crisis and a public safety crisis and bringing the two together.”

A desire not to repeat that history prompted him to defer several fentanyl bills for the remainder of this year, Jones-Sawyer said. He said many of the suggestions focused on “how can we refill the prisons” rather than a long-term solution to addiction.

Jones-Sawyer said he would like the Legislature’s approach to be aligned with recent funding and enforcement actions on fentanyl by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. General Rob Bonta. Newsom proposed nearly $100 million for the 2023-24 budget Prevention, treatment and education efforts, and expanded California National Guard operations at the border. Bonta has also increased enforcement, leading to an increase Seizure of fentanyl pills and powder.

The Legislature’s Public Safety Committees have pushed aside a list of bills that would lengthen prison terms or create new crimes because the Democrats who control them don’t want California to incarcerate more people. But the severity of the fentanyl crisis has drawn criticism of this commitment and forced a broader discussion of what role the criminal justice system should play in solving the problem.

“Fentanyl is causing an incredible number of deaths and unfortunately the trajectory is going in the wrong direction,” Senator Tom Umberg (D-Orange) said at a hearing for Senate Bill 44 before it was voted down.

The proposal would have required courts to issue written reprimands to people convicted of fentanyl drug offenses, warning them of criminal liability if they sell a fentanyl product that kills another person.

The proposal could facilitate a future conviction, as the warning letter could be used as evidence for prosecutors to show that a suspect was aware of the risks of drug trafficking. It was modeled after the state’s DUI Advisory, which is used to deter repeat drunk driving. Two other versions of the bill have not passed the committee in recent years.

State Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Republican from Yucaipa who co-authored SB 44, fought back tears during the hearing as family members spoke of those lost to drug overdoses. She said she was “heartbroken” at the defeat of the bill.

“Make no mistake. A policy like SB 44 would make a difference,” said Ochoa Bogh.

Umberg asked for a reconsideration of the bill, meaning he could get another vote soon. But he will likely have to accept an amendment proposed by Democrats to limit the bill to merchants who specifically know they sell fentanyl or laced products – a recommendation he has so far rejected.

State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said the proposal evokes the hard crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in thousands of blacks and browns serving life sentences for drug offenses.

“Making it easier to prosecute someone for murder is not going to address or solve this problem,” Bradford said.

Jones-Sawyer plans to hold an informal hearing this fall, when the legislature is not in session, that will bring everyone interested in solving the fentanyl crisis around the table, he says. This means that until then, with the consideration of laws such Assembly Act 367which would have increased criminal penalties for those who sell, supply, administer or give away fentanyl products that result in serious bodily harm.

“I felt like fentanyl was such a serious issue that it could pass the committee,” said Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, a San Diego Democrat and author of AB 367.

Riverside County’s Matt Capelouto watched in the hearing room as the Senate panel killed SB 44. The bill is named “Alexandra’s Law” in honor of his 20-year-old daughter, who died after taking a fentanyl pill she bought from a retailer on Snapchat while returning home from school for the holidays.

“What are the politicians on the Public Safety Committee charged with protecting the lives and livelihoods of their constituents actually doing? What are they doing about the drug dealers, the people responsible for knowingly endangering the lives of the people they trade dollars for death with?” Capelouto said after the hearing.

“I’ll tell you what they do,” he said. “Nothing.”

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