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Five hours in the 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.

On an average day in California, about 18 people die due to overdoses from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. That works out to nearly four people every five hours.

In that same five-hour period, legislators on Wednesday heard the sad account of a grieving mother, analyses from local officials and researchers and even one admission of teenage cannabis usage from an Assemblymember.

The marathon mega meeting on California’s fentanyl crisis — the first for a new select Assembly committee — addressed four different aspects: addiction, public health, education and law enforcement response. But Republicans, who have complained loudly that bills to increase penalties on drug dealers are going nowhere, cast doubt that the hearing put enough emphasis on accountability and public safety. Ahead of the hearing, Assembly Republicans unveiled an online fentanyl death counter.

  • Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a Modesto Republican, in a statement: “If I could describe today’s hearing in one word it would be: ‘frustrating.’ Today’s special hearing was a lot of talk and once again short on any real action.”

Laura Didier, an outreach coordinator at a nonprofit, recounted the story of her son who died from fentanyl poisoning.

  • Didier: “There are no words to express the excruciating pain of losing someone so young, so precious, with such promise, to a danger you didn’t even know existed…. Fentanyl has irreversibly changed the drug landscape into this nightmare that we are witnessing today.”

Legislators questioned experts, local officials and each other about the best way to tackle the problem. Republicans argued that prevention and harm reduction would only go so far against dealers and traffickers.

  • Assemblymember Joe Patterson, a Granite Bay Republican: “(They) aren’t going to benefit from some of these addiction treatments that we have. They’re not going to benefit from education either. They don’t care. They’re criminals and they should be punished for it.”

In response, Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine, said that locking up street-corner drug dealers will only fill up prisons and not do anything “to alter the course of drug markets.”

  • Humphreys: “You can find a new street-corner drug dealer faster than you can fill a job flipping burgers. And we did that in the ’80s and ’90s and it had no positive effect and it destroyed a lot of communities who were disproportionately punished.”

And when Brendon Woods, the chief public defender in Alameda County, was asked directly if increasing punishments would deter fentanyl dealers, he said no.

  • Woods: “We cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis…. Not one of the people who we represent are thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m not going to sell X because I’m going to be sentenced to prison for 20 years.’”

From increased drug use and distribution to the lack of adequate treatment, frustrations ran high as legislators pointed out the state’s various failings in the fentanyl crisis, which continues to worsen through the year.

  • Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, a Bakersfield Democrat: “Are we going to keep having these committee meetings every single six months when a new drug emerges?…. We’ve submerged our culture with drugs. But where is the access to treatment for our people?”

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