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How will California handle the youth fentanyl overdose crisis?

A behavioral health fellow with the Baltimore City Health Department displays a sample of Narcan nasal spray in Baltimore, Maryland on Jan. 23, 2018.
Patrick Semansky
AP Photo
A behavioral health fellow with the Baltimore City Health Department displays a sample of Narcan nasal spray in Baltimore, Maryland on Jan. 23, 2018.

Expect a lot of debate over how California should respond to the state’s mounting fentanyl epidemic when state lawmakers return to Sacramento early next year.

Bills dealing with the super-powerful synthetic opioid are already piling up, many of them focused on youth in the wake of a stunning analysis that found fentanyl was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths among 15- to 24-year-old Californians in 2021.

Amid a surge of fentanyl overdoses on school campuses, new Republican Assemblymember Joe Patterson of Rocklin unveiled a proposal to require public K-12 schools to keep on campus Narcan, medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, the Los Angeles Times reports. Democratic state Sen. Dave Cortese of San Jose introduced a bill to create a state framework to prevent youth fentanyl overdoses, including by training school staff to administer Narcan and by asking schools to share overdose prevention information with students and parents.

  • State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond wrote in an October letter to school officials: “I encourage all local educational agencies to take immediate steps to educate students, staff, and families so that we can prevent unintended use of this deadly drug. This is also a critical moment to intervene and help youth and families who are struggling with substance abuse disorders and those who are using drugs to cope with trauma, loss, or mental illness.”

Fentanyl isn’t the only concern. Four Southern California middle school students apparently overdosed after eating marijuana-laced products Wednesday, a week after 10 Los Angeles middle schoolers evidently overdosed on cannabis edibles, according to the Associated Press. Before Halloween, state health officials warned parents to be on the lookout for possibly dangerous hemp-derived candies, noting “the number of children who are eating these products is increasing.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced nearly $481 million in grants to help overhaul California’s youth mental health system, noting that in the Golden State, “the rates of serious mental illness and substance use disorders are highest for individuals ages 18 to 25, and rates of children and youth experiencing behavioral health conditions, youth emergency department visits for mental health concerns, and youth suicides continue to rise.”

Other approaches to dealing with the fentanyl crisis — such as cracking down on dealers — could prove more difficult in the supermajority-Democratic Legislature, which tends to be hesitant about increasing criminal penalties as it eyes shuttering more state prisons.

  • Last year, for example, lawmakers rejected a proposal to permit convicted drug dealers to be charged with manslaughter or murder for selling fatal doses of fentanyl or other opiates or narcotics. They also killed a bill to increase jail time for people selling 2 grams or more of fentanyl, including those hawking it on social media.
  • Republican Assemblymember Jim Patterson of Fresno, a member of the newly created Assembly Select Committee on Fentanyl, Opioid Addiction, and Overdose Prevention, said last week he intends to introduce a similar version of the latter bill. “Since such a small amount of fentanyl can have deadly consequences, it’s vital that we change the way we hold dealers and suppliers accountable,” Patterson said in a statement.
  • Todd Gloria, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, signed an executive order in late November directing the city police department to “strengthen and prioritize enforcement for fentanyl sales-related crimes to the greatest extent possible.” Gloria also announced plans to pursue state and federal legislation that would, among other things, create sentencing enhancements for fentanyl trafficking and sales near schools.

Another approach — opening safe injection sites, where people can administer drugs using clean needles under the supervision of health professionals — may not stand much more of a chance. Angering harm reduction advocates, Newsom in August vetoed a bill that would have authorized overdose prevention pilot programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, citing concerns of “worsening drug consumption challenges.”

  • Catie Stewart, communications director for state Sen. Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat who authored the bill, told me Thursday: “Unless it was clear it wouldn’t get vetoed, the senator has no plans to reintroduce the legislation.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.