California kills bills that would punish fentanyl pushers

As thousands of Californians die each year from fentanyl-fueled drug overdoses, an uphill battle has erupted in Sacramento over how lawmakers can hold drug dealers accountable without filling state prisons and waging another “war.” against drugs”.

On one side of the debate, moderate Republicans and Democrats are calling for tougher criminal penalties for dealers who sell the deadly drug, which is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and has contributed to nearly 6,000 overdose deaths in California in 2021.

On the other, left-leaning Democrats who have spent the last decade revamping the state penal code to favor treatment and rehabilitation over long prison sentences, and who are reluctant to adopt policies that, fear- they, could devastate black and brown communities.

The disagreement reached a boiling point this week at the state Capitol, as Californians whose family members died of fentanyl overdoses filled a courtroom where Democrats voted against a bipartisan bill that would require warning convicted fentanyl dealers that they could face homicide charges if they sell it. Again. Meanwhile, a Democratic lawmaker has shelved several other bills aimed at increasing penalties for fentanyl dealers.

“I was there during the crack epidemic, and it’s really very similar to the crack hysteria,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles who chairs the committee. of public safety. “And we rushed to find a solution, instead of looking at it as both a public health crisis and a public safety crisis and putting them both together.”

A desire not to repeat that story led him to put several fentanyl bills on hold for the rest of the year, Jones-Sawyer said. He said many of the proposals were about “how can we fill the prisons up again” instead of a long-term solution to addiction.

Jones-Sawyer said he wants the Legislature’s approach to align with recent fentanyl funding and enforcement actions by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. General Rob Bonta. Newsom proposed nearly $100 million in the 2023-24 budget for prevention, treatment and education efforts, and expanded California National Guard operations on the border. Bonta has also stepped up enforcement, which has led to an increase in the seizure of fentanyl pills and powder.

Legislature public safety committees have a reputation for shelving bills that would lengthen prison sentences 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 that commitment and forced a broader discussion about the role the criminal justice system should have in addressing the problem.

“Fentanyl is causing an incredible number of deaths, and the trajectory is unfortunately going in the wrong direction,” Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange) said during a hearing on Senate Bill 44 before it was announced. be rejected.

The proposal would have required courts to provide a written warning to those convicted of fentanyl-related offenses, warning them of their criminal liability if they sold a fentanyl product that kills another person.

The proposal could make it easier to secure a future conviction, as the warning could be used as evidence by prosecutors to prove that a defendant was aware of the risks of drug trafficking. It was modeled after the state’s DUI Advisory, which is used to deter repeated drunk driving. Two other versions of the bill failed to pass the committee in recent years.

State Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Republican from Yucaipa who co-wrote SB 44, held back tears during the hearing as family members spoke of those who had lost their lives to overdoses. She said she was “heartbroken” by Bill’s defeat.

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

Umberg has called for the bill to be reconsidered, meaning he could get another vote soon. But he will likely have to accept an amendment proposed by Democrats to limit the bill to dealers who explicitly know they are selling fentanyl or laced products — a recommendation he has so far rejected.

State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said the proposal is reminiscent of the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s that saw thousands of black and brown people serving prison sentences in life for drug offences.

“Just making it easier to prosecute someone for murder won’t fix or solve this problem,” Bradford said.

Jones-Sawyer plans to hold an informal hearing this fall, when the Legislative Assembly is not in session, at which everyone with an interest in resolving the fentanyl crisis will have a seat at the table, he said. That means waiting until then for consideration of legislation like Assembly Bill 367, which would have increased criminal penalties for those who sell, supply, administer or give away fentanyl products that cause serious bodily harm. .

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

Watching in the courtroom as the Senate panel killed off SB 44 was Riverside County’s Matt Capelouto. The bill is titled ‘Alexandra’s Law’ in honor of her 20-year-old daughter, who died after taking a fentanyl pill she bought from a dealer on Snapchat on her way home from school. school for the holidays.

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

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

Los Angeles Times

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