Punishment Or Prevention: California Debates Fentanyl Crisis

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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. At a special hearing Thursday, the Assembly public safety committee finally made some progress: They advanced four bills including one that would increase penalties for dealers with at least one kilogram of fentanyl products and another that would prohibit people from carrying a gun while also being in possession of fentanyl.

The committee also voted down two bills that would lengthen prison sentences for fentanyl-related crimes, and another bill to toughen penalties for sales of fentanyl on social media was shelved.

Smith, who testified Thursday, said she was disappointed that a bill she supported did not advance, “But I hope to believe them when they say they’re willing to have discussions about it and try to work with us and get something done.”

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

In California it has divided Democratic lawmakers, who hold majorities in both chambers. Republicans and moderate Democrats are pushing for stronger prison sentences for fentanyl dealers, while others are wary of policies that stand to 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, whose bill did not advance Thursday but will be taken up again during a mid-May study session, said the fentanyl crisis goes beyond party lines.

“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.” But after members of law enforcement, prosecutors and families of fentanyl overdose victims protested, Democratic leadership in the Assembly ordered a special hearing for seven of them.

The issue is personal for Jones-Sawyer, who lost his uncle to heroin and a cousin to crack cocaine. He witnessed how public policies during the 1980s crack epidemic resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, without solving drug problems.

“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 people ages 15 to 24 in California last year. Drug overdoses nationwide have claimed more than 100,000 lives annually since 2020, with about two-thirds of them fentanyl-related.

The current crisis is deadlier than any the U.S. has seen, and in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed more than $90 million in new spending to combat it. Last week he directed the California Highway Patrol and National Guard to help San Francisco tackle fentanyl.

Newsom has not publicly supported any fentanyl-related legislation.

Fentanyl public safety measures may face an uphill battle in California's Senate. This week the body's Public Safety Committee shelved a bipartisan bill by Democratic Sen. Tom Umberg that would require courts to warn people convicted of dealing 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, could make it easier for prosecutors to convict repeat offenders, as the warning would serve as evidence of awareness of the overdose risk.

Public health experts are calling on lawmakers to reject harsher sentences for fentanyl convictions. Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, said they could could deter people from calling 911 for help for fear of arrest.

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

Republican Assemblymember Jim Patterson, of Fresno, who authored a bill increasing fentanyl penalties that did not pass Thursday, said not lawmakers failed to make progress on the issue.

“They aren't interested in justice, and as a result we will continue to have injustice for victims of fentanyl poisoning,” Patterson said.

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

The Assembly public safety committee also passed bills Thursday to create a statewide task force to study the issue and increase coordination among law enforcement agencies.

Smith, who plans to return to the Capitol in May for the study session, remains hopeful the Legislature will work together on the fentanyl crisis.

“I’m never going to stop (speaking out), because I speak for not just myself because of my son Jackson, but I also speak for all mothers that have lost their children to fentanyl,” she said. “We’ve got to do something now.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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