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Fentanyl bills advance at the California Legislature, but divisions on approach remain

Matt Capelouto, whose daughter died from a fentanyl overdose, speaks at a news conference outside the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Tran Nguyen
AP Photo
Matt Capelouto, whose daughter died from a fentanyl overdose, speaks at a news conference outside the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

State lawmakers approved nine bills Thursday aimed at reducing deaths from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid making its way into street drugs and fake prescription pills.

But they remain divided on how best to approach the issue: Several legislative Democrats have refused to raise criminal penalties for fentanyl distribution, frustrating members of both parties as deaths from the drug continue to climb.

Just one of the bills approved Thursday raises the penalty for dealers carrying at least a kilogram — or a little than two pounds — of the drug, aligning it with penalties for possessing large amounts of heroin and other drugs.

Several lawmakers described it as a good step but said the alignment doesn’t account for fentanyl’s dangerous potency.

“This doesn’t go far enough,” said Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher, a Republican who represents the Yuba-Sutter area. “We’re talking about fentanyl, where one pill can kill. A kilo means somewhere around 500,000 pills that someone would have to have to get this enhancement.”

Other proposed penalty enhancements for furnishing fentanyl that results in a person’s death or selling on social media were stalled in the Legislature’s public safety committees this spring.

Democrats hesitant to increase penalties have emphasized the need for more education, addiction treatment and access to the overdose antidote naloxone.

Other measures approved by the full Assembly on Thursday would require schools to stock at least two doses of naloxone and require insurers to cover it. Others would require college campuses to have fentanyl test strips available and expand training for overdose prevention for students, teachers and parents.

The nine fentanyl-related bills that passed the Assembly floor Thursday received unanimous support, though several Democrats opposed to increasing penalties held off on voting for the kilogram-enhancement proposal.

They will next move to the state Senate for consideration.

Assembly member Joe Patterson, a Republican representing El Dorado and Placer counties, authored three of the measures approved Thursday. Patterson has also taken the issue on as a priority after a constituent, 17-year-old Zach Didier, died after taking a pill he believed was Percocet but was laced with fentanyl.

Patterson said he wants to see more laws to expand education and treatment, but believes accountability is important, too.

“Those three things together, I think will solve this problem,” he said in an interview. “If we're not holding people accountable, then we're not going to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the Legislature is only addressing two of them. They're totally ignoring the third one.”

Patterson argued this crisis can’t be compared to drug policies 1980s and 90s, when he said people knew what substances they were buying.

“The war on drugs was about going after street dealers but that's not what this is about,” he said. “This is about going after people who are poisoning people in our community.”

The bills’ approval came a day after a nearly five-hour hearing on the issue where lawmakers heard testimony from addiction experts, school and law enforcement officials and parents who have lost children to the drug.

Several lawmakers expressed frustration during the hearing at the state’s slow pace to address the rising death rate, including physician and Assembly member Jasmeet Bains, a Democrat representing the Bakersfield area.

“We are losing our war on drugs,” she said of the fentanyl crisis. “How did we open the floodgates for access to drugs but not open the floodgates for treatment? This is absolutely our fault.”

Several experts testifying at Wednesday’s hearing said penalty enhancements for street dealers would not solve the problem — that law enforcement should target cartels and high-level dealers.

“We will not hesitate to use the tools that we have in our toolbox to prosecute,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton. “However, I strongly want to emphasize that the fentanyl crisis can't be solved solely by prosecution tools, and I certainly want to emphasize that our crisis can't be solved by the failed war on drug policies of the past.”

Witnesses also recommended increased access to naloxone and additional public awareness campaigns and education in schools to prevent deaths.

While a bill to require naloxone in schools is advancing, another measure to require bars, gas stations, libraries and some hotels to keep the overdose reversal drug on-hand failed in the legislature last week.

Its author, Assembly member Matt Haney, a Democrat of San Francisco called its failure “disappointing.”

“It's really unacceptable to not have naloxone, which is very cheap as compared to any other life-saving intervention,” he said.

Nicole covers politics and government for CapRadio. Before moving to California, she won several awards, including a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, for her political reporting in her hometown of Salt Lake City. Besides public radio, Nicole is passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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