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Lawmakers plan to focus on California fentanyl crisis

A man falls asleep standing up in an alley after smoking fentanyl in Los Angeles on Aug. 23, 2022.
Jae C. Hong
AP Photo
A man falls asleep standing up in an alley after smoking fentanyl in Los Angeles on Aug. 23, 2022.

What could have been a dramatic showdown Thursday, orchestrated by Republican legislators demanding action on bills addressing California’s fentanyl crisis, was ultimately avoided with a deal for a special hearing next week.

Let’s back up a moment: In March, the chairperson of the Assembly public safety committee, Los Angeles Democrat Reggie Jones-Sawyer, announced that the committee would put a hold on all fentanyl-related measures. At the time, he cited “duplicative efforts” and “temporary solutions” that provided no “rational solutions at all.”

That move put several bills to increase penalties or expand treatment— authored by Republicans but also some Democrats — in limbo, and weeks ticked by with no clear timeline of when they would be reconsidered again. To put pressure on the committee, Republican legislators and district attorneys, joined by residents whose family members died from fentanyl overdoses, held a rally on Tuesday near the state Capitol.

On Wednesday — the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to discuss the fentanyl crisis with Attorney General Rob Bonta and Mayor London Breed — Republicans announced they would move to withdraw five fentanyl measures from the committee and try to force votes Thursday on the Assembly floor. Four of the five are authored by Democrats, including one that would enhance sentencing for fentanyl-related deaths from San Diego Assemblymember Brian Maienschein. (In March, he publicly expressed disappointment with the move by Jones-Sawyer.)

Thursday, just before the floor session, legislators avoided the floor fight by agreeing to debate the five bills, plus a sixth one, at a special committee hearing on April 27. Republicans considered it a big win, and a few Democrats reacted in favor.

  • Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher of Chico, in a statement: “I’m glad my Democratic colleagues finally recognized that a months-long delay in addressing the fentanyl crisis is not acceptable…. We’re making progress, but we will not rest until this poison is out of our communities and the killing spree ends.”
  • Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, an Irvine Democrat, in a statement: “My colleagues and I are working to treat this crisis with the urgency it requires. These bills deserve a hearing so that they may continue to proceed along the legislative process.”

In response, Jones-Sawyer said that because there wasn’t initially “enough time to properly discuss this crisis,” he wanted to hold a hearing later.

  • Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer, in an emailed statement to CalMatters: “I wanted to… ensure we could have more stakeholders in the room and give space to allow victims’ families sufficient time to be heard beyond the boundaries of the customary bill hearing. This is exactly what I will do…. I look forward to our public hearing on fentanyl so that we as a legislative body can learn from experts and craft policies that protect Californians and properly punish suppliers.”

Update: Friday, Newsom announced a partnership with San Francisco to send reinforcements from the California Highway Patrol and National Guard to help the city with its fentanyl crisis.

A reminder of why this is a big deal: In 2021, 5,722 people in California died from overdosing on fentanyl, including 224 who were 15 to 19 years old, according to the California Department of Public Health.

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