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Punishment or prevention: California debates fentanyl crisis

California Fentanyl
Posted at 9:07 PM, Apr 27, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Pamela Smith remembers vividly the last time she saw her only son alive.

It was 3:18 a.m. on July 3, 2016, in Fresno, California, and 22-year-old Jackson Smith was lying motionless on a table in an emergency room while a nurse performed chest compressions. Earlier that night, he had taken an oxycodone pill laced with fentanyl, and then he stopped breathing. Within seconds of his mother entering the emergency room, he died.

Since then, Smith has dedicated her life to fighting the fentanyl crisis. This year, that has meant advocating for some of the more than 30 bills introduced in the California Legislature to address the issue.

But a number of those bills have since stalled, caught in a philosophical dispute between lawmakers about the best way to address a crisis that is killing roughly 110 people in the state each week. About half of the proposals focus on public safety measures, such as punishing drug dealers with longer prison sentences, while the others aim to increase accessibility to fentanyl overdose treatments, and to create education and prevention programs.

The bills focusing on public safety measures were at risk of getting lost until Smith and dozens of other protesters converged on the state Capitol last week demanding they be heard. Six of those bills, including four that would increase fentanyl penalties, will get a public hearing on Thursday.

“(Drug dealers) need to know that if they are caught with this poison, they are going to spend a great deal of time in our jails and prisons because that’s where they belong,” Smith said.

Imposing tougher prison sentences on fentanyl dealers has been the common strategy for lawmakers across the U.S., including those in Democratic-controlled legislatures such as California, Oregon and Nevada. The tactic has drawn fierce opposition from harm reduction advocates, who say criminalizing the drug issue has historically backfired and worsened the crisis.

In California, it has divided the Democratic caucus that controls a majority of votes. Republicans and moderate Democrats are pushing for stronger prison sentences for fentanyl dealers, while others are wary to advance policies that would lengthen criminal sentences and incarcerate more people.

“It’s good for politics and publicity, but it really doesn’t get to the root of the problem of drug addiction,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat and chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, who called bills that increase prison sentences “a Republican playbook.”

Democratic Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, of Orange County, said the crisis goes beyond party lines. She authored a bill that would increase prison sentences for those who sell fentanyl on social media.

“This is not a red state crisis or a blue state crisis. This is an American crisis and it’s certainly a California crisis,” she said.

That tension boiled over last week. In March, Jones-Sawyer announced he was delaying hearings of at least seven fentanyl-related bills that would increase prison sentences, calling them a “Band-Aid approach” to the problem. But after law enforcement, prosecutors and families of fentanyl overdose victims protested, Democratic leadership in the Assembly ordered a special hearing for six of them.

The issue is personal for Jones-Sawyer. He said he lost his uncle to heroin, an opioid similar to fentanyl, and a cousin to crack cocaine. He witnessed how public policies during the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s resulted in the mass incarceration of communities of color, noting it did not solve the drug issue.

“We really do need to get to the root of that (by) cutting off the supply and then reducing, if not eliminating, the demand. We got to do both,” Jones-Sawyer said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl overdoses accounted for one in five deaths among young people in California between the ages of 15 and 24 last year. Across the nation, drug overdoses have claimed more than 100,000 deaths annually since 2020, with about two-thirds of them fentanyl-related.

The current overdose crisis is deadlier than any the U.S. has ever seen. It’s one reason why California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, proposed more than $90 million in new spending to combat the fentanyl crisis. Last week, he directed the California Highway Patrol and National Guard to help San Francisco battle its fentanyl crisis.

Newsom has not publicly supported any fentanyl-related legislation.

Fentanyl public safety measures may face an uphill battle in California's Senate. Earlier this week, the Senate Public Safety Committee shelved a bipartisan bill by Democratic Sen. Tom Umberg that would require courts to warn those convicted of selling fentanyl that they could be charged with murder if someone they sold to dies in an overdose. The bill, modeled after the state’s DUI advisory, may make it easier for prosecutors to convict repeat offenders, as the warning could serve as evidence that a person is aware of the risk of selling fentanyl.

Public health experts are calling on lawmakers to reject bills that would impose harsher prison sentences for fentanyl convictions. Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, said stronger fentanyl penalties could deter people from calling 911 for help due to fear of being arrested.

“Increasing penalties will likely result in more deaths,” he said at a Tuesday news briefing ahead of the special hearing, adding that stronger prison sentences have had little impact on the drug abuse issue historically.

Other bills that would make overdose reversal medication more accessible and increase education on fentanyl have received early support in legislative committee hearings, including one, authored by Democratic Sen. Dave Cortese. It would require K-12 schools to create a protocol for student opioid overdoses as part of a safety plan. The bill, called “Melanie’s Law,” is named after 15-year-old Melanie Ramos, who died from a suspected fentanyl overdose at a Hollywood school.

Smith, who’s planning to testify during Thursday's hearing, said she’s hopeful that lawmakers will advance the public safety bills.

“We just have to come together and solve this issue, because we’re losing a generation,” she said. “And I don’t want to see anybody, any other parents, go through the pain that I go through every day.”