As thousands of Californians die each year from drug overdoses fueled by fentanyl, a bitter fight has emerged in Sacramento over how lawmakers can hold dealers accountable without refilling state prisons and waging another “war on drugs.”
On one side of the debate are Republicans and moderate Democrats calling for stronger criminal penalties for dealers who sell the deadly drug, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and contributed to nearly 6,000 overdose deaths in California in 2021.
On the other are left-leaning Democrats who’ve spent the last decade retooling the state’s penal code to favor treatment and rehabilitation over long prison sentences, and who are reluctant to embrace policies they fear could devastate Black and brown communities.
The disagreement reached a boiling point this week at the state Capitol, as Californians whose family members died from fentanyl overdoses packed a hearing room where Democrats voted down 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 shelved several other bills to increase sentences for fentanyl dealers.
“I was around during the crack cocaine epidemic, and this is really very similar to the hysteria around crack cocaine,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “And we rushed to come up with a solution, instead of looking at it from both a public health crisis and a public safety crisis and to bring them both together.”
A desire to not repeat that history led him to shelve several fentanyl bills for the rest of this year, Jones-Sawyer said. He said many of the proposals focused on “how can we fill up the prisons again” instead of a long-term solution to addiction.
Jones-Sawyer said he wants the Legislature’s approach to align with recent funding and enforcement actions on fentanyl from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. Newsom proposed nearly $100 million in the 2023-24 budget for prevention, treatment and education efforts, and expanded the California National Guard’s operations at the border. Bonta has also ramped up enforcement, leading to the increased seizure of fentanyl pills and powder.
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