Stiffer fentanyl bills lose in state showdown; local legislators react

Politics and government

Compiled from news releases, staff reports and a CalMatters report by Lynn La 

During a dramatic Assembly hearing Thursday at the state Capitol, seven fentanyl measures finally received a verdict: Four bills passed, but the two most sweeping failed and a third was put on hold. 

The Senate Public Safety Committee also has not advanced similar bills that would have imposed stiffer penalties on fentanyl traffickers were shot down. 

Watching closely: Grieving families who lost loved ones to fentanyl poisoning, recovering addicts and advocates for criminal justice reform. To get inside the cramped hearing room, many lined up for more than an hour before the Assembly Public Safety Committee convened — a hearing held after pressure from Republicans and some Democrats. 

Kellie Amaru, from Willows, said she lost her son Ryan when he was 27 to a fentanyl overdose and said she was disappointed with the committee. 

“I’m afraid it’s all talk. They’re just trying to make political points,” Amaru said. “They got to realize that some of us are actually voters.” 

Much of the committee’s debate centered on a key policy choice: Is it better to treat the fentanyl crisis, which killed 5,722 people in California in 2021, as a public health issue? Or is it a public safety emergency where harsher punishments could deter drug dealers? 

Locally, the city of Santa Clarita began tracking fatal overdoses in response to community concerns in March 2021. From that point to the end of 2021, the city reported there were 13 overdose deaths. In 2022, officials believe there were at least 31, although that number may change as data and fatality investigations are finalized. 

While lawmakers agreed that there was no one solution, Democrats on the Assembly committee pushed back on the bills to increase sentences, warning that such policies mirrored the mass incarceration that followed the 1980s “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. 

Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairperson of the committee: “I was a mortician during the crack cocaine crisis. I’m not a mortician right now because of the crack cocaine crisis … Our communities were decimated by the War on Drugs.” 

All but one of the bills were authored by Democrats. But two bills to increase penalties that failed to advance were only supported by the two Republicans on the committee, Juan Alanis from Modesto and Tom Lackey from Palmdale, whose district also includes some eastern and northern slivers of the Santa Clarita Valley.  

Soon after the votes, the Assembly Republican Caucus slammed “radical Democrats” for siding with drug dealers. 

Jim Patterson, Fresno Republican and author of one of the rejected bills, said, “If we really care about the addicts, wouldn’t we also care that their dealers are on the street churning more and more? … If there are not consequences, there will be repeat supply available.” 

The four bills that passed (just beating the deadline for policy committees to approve bills that also need the blessing of a fiscal committee): 

• Assembly Bill 33 to establish a task force to address fentanyl addiction and overdoses. 

• AB 474 to prioritize cooperation between state and local law enforcement to crack down on fentanyl trafficking. 

• AB 675 to make it illegal to carry a gun while in possession of fentanyl. 

• AB 701 to increase fines for dealers by putting fentanyl in the same category as heroin and cocaine. 

The three bills that did not advance: 

• AB 367 to add sentencing enhancements for those who seriously injure or kill through fentanyl poisoning. 

• AB 955 to increase penalties for dealers who sell fentanyl over social media (held for study). 

• AB 1058 to increase penalties for those possessing a large amount of fentanyl. 

Speaking during the hearing on AB 367, Lackey said the fentanyl crisis is incomparable to past drug crises. 

“This is clearly a different playbook than dealing with the crack cocaine crisis in the ’90s,” Lackey said during the hearing. “Fentanyl is not akin to crack. These victims of this drug die. They don’t have a chance for rehabilitation. This is a completely different toxin, and should be treated as such. And therefore, when you consider that these victims have a final outcome — a final, they’re gone — that deserves different consideration and penalty enhancements are more than deserved, and I will clearly be supporting this very respectable bill.” 

Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo, D-Chatsworth, whose district includes most of the SCV, said in a prepared statement that the issue is complicated. 

“Addressing addiction and drug use is a complex problem, and I applaud all of my colleagues’ diligent work in finding ways to save lives, help Californians struggling with addiction, and keep our communities safe,” said the statement from Schiavo, who did not participate in the committee votes because she’s not on that committee. “In setting a big table to bring impacted families, community organizations and policymakers together, I’m confident we can build holistic solutions that help us save lives, care for one another, and build a future free from the impacts opioids have had on our communities.”   

On the Senate side, state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, issued a statement expressing his frustration with Senate Democrats’ handling of the fentanyl crisis after the Senate Public Safety Committee shot down measures similar to the ones that failed to clear the Assembly Public Safety Committee.  

“Right now in Sacramento the progressives are calling the shots within the Democratic Party, and they’ve made it crystal clear they are not serious about finding solutions to the fentanyl crisis,” Wilk said in the release. “Fentanyl is pure poison, and it is now the leading cause of death for young people in the United States. The very least we should do is hold dealers accountable for their deadly actions. Standing back and doing nothing is frankly a slap in the face to victims and their families.” 

The statement from Wilk’s office provided the following summary of bills that were shot down in the Senate Public Safety Committee in the weeks and days leading up to the deadline: 

• Senate Bill 44 — Wilk was a co-author. This bipartisan measure introduced by Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, and Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, with more than 20 Senate co-authors, was struck down twice by four Democrats on the Senate Public Safety Committee — once on March 28 and again when an amended version of the bill was killed on April 25. SB 44 simply would ensure fentanyl dealers are fully aware they will be held accountable for selling the lethal drug by requiring the courts to advise individuals convicted of fentanyl sales and manufacturing-related offenses that subsequent offenses could result in a charge of voluntary manslaughter or murder. 

• SB 237 — Wilk was a co-author. SB 237 would increase penalties for any person who possesses fentanyl for sale or purchase for sale by two years (to four, five, or six years), transport, sale and distribution by four years (to seven, eight, or nine years), and trafficking by four years (to seven, 10, or 13 years). The bill was introduced by Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. 

• SB 325 (Grove) — Would add penalties of three, four or five years of additional punishment for the buying, selling and transporting of “rainbow” fentanyl. 

• SB 62 — Would add fentanyl to the list of controlled substances (currently heroin, cocaine base, and cocaine) which are eligible for an additional prison term (i.e. a sentence enhancement) ranging from three to 25 years based on the volume of the controlled substance. The bill was introduced by Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Huntington Beach. 

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