Why fentanyl bills are stalling in the California Legislature
Family members of people who have died from fentanyl overdose demanded greater urgency on the issue from state lawmakers on Tuesday, expressing frustration at the number of bills that have so far failed to advance this year.
Among them is a bipartisan bill voted down in the Senate Public Safety Committee last month that would require people convicted of distributing certain illicit drugs be given a warning that they could be convicted of homicide if a person dies as a result of drugs that person furnishes. The state has a similar policy on DUIs.
“Everyone is trying to figure out how to do something about this historic, deadly scourge on our communities,” said Matt Capeluto, whose college-age daughter Alexandra died from fentanyl in 2019 and who inspired the bill, SB 44.
“Except the California Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees,” he said. “That’s so hard for me to say. But it’s true.”
Nearly 6,000 Californians died from fentanyl overdose in 2021, about 83% of all opioid-related deaths that year, according to data from the state public health department.
It mirrors a nationwide trend of skyrocketing deaths from the synthetic opiate, which police say has become more widespread in recent years because it is cheaper for drug cartels to make and sell. It’s also more deadly.
But bills authored by Democrats and Republicans that would increase penalties for drug dealers have so far been voted down in public safety committees or denied hearings this year. Other legislation to increase access to overdose reversal medication such as naloxone has gained early approval.
Some Democratic lawmakers are hesitant to repeat policies of the “War on Drugs” that began in the 1970s, which lead to mass incarceration, particularly of Black and brown people.
Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, announced he will hold all fentanyl-related bills in his committee until stakeholders can craft a “tactical solution” that addresses both supply and demand of illicit drugs.
The chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Jones-Sawyer said he plans to hold a hearing dedicated to the issue over the summer, which he said would allow for more in-depth discussion, particularly from families of victims.
He also said he hopes to have some bills crafted with an urgency clause, so they could take effect in early 2024 if approved.
“This emergency is too big for us to just vote up or down,” Jones-Sawyer said “Let's have a comprehensive discussion, a strategy and an in-depth discussion so that when we move forward, we will move forward with some solutions.”
Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher said families have waited long enough already.
“The chair of the [Assembly] Public Safety Committee has heard these bills for three years,” he said. “Victims are coming and telling you they want something now. For years they've said this.”
Orange County resident Perla Mendoa said she has visited Sacramento to advocate for legislation on the fentanyl crisis four times since 2020, when her 20-year-old son Elijah Figueroa died from an overdose after taking what he thought was a single Percocet.
“We're families that are doing whatever we can to raise awareness and stop these senseless deaths,” she said, adding to lawmakers considering the bills: “We need you to do your part.”
While the bills remain in limbo, some Democratic lawmakers are preparing a public awareness campaign about the dangers of fentanyl later this week.
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