Perla Mendoza holds a photo of her son, Daniel “Elijah” Figueroa, who died of fentanyl poisoning. Photo taken April 24, 2023. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
California, like much of the country, faces a catastrophic fentanyl crisis. The drug, which can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, has become the fastest growing cause of death among our state’s youth.
Due to its extreme potency, fentanyl is often added to other drugs to make them cheaper and more powerful. Most victims use it accidentally because the drug is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, making it incredibly difficult to detect and even more dangerous to our youth.
Addressing this crisis has been a top priority for the California Legislature this year, and it absolutely must be. This is not a theoretical problem for me, as the father of an 18 year old daughter, it is deeply personal. But our response must be comprehensive, data-driven, science-based, and rooted in drug policy that gets to the root of the problem.
The Democrats and Republicans have introduced a wide range of measures to deal with the crisis. The Public Safety Committees of the Assembly and the Senate have processed bills focused on the criminal aspects of drug trafficking, and the Health and Education Committees of both chambers have scheduled measures aimed at the mental and physical components of the addiction.
As a member of the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, I am reminded of the old saying that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, that’s the approach I see all too often from my fellow Republicans who seem more focused on using the fentanyl crisis to reignite a drug war that will fail as it did before.
We have already seen that taking a “lock ’em all” approach that reignites old culture wars and re-criminalizes small amounts of drugs would have a devastating impact on LGBTQ+ youth and communities of color and would only fill our prisons with people of our most marginalized communities. Multiple studies and decades of failed drug policy have shown us that longer sentences for simple drug possession do not prevent crime, they simply extend prison terms and separate families and communities for generations.
Existing law already contains significant penalties for possession and sale of fentanyl. Anyone who sells or offers to sell fentanyl is already subject to up to 5 years in prison. Unfortunately, under the proposals of the Republican Party, if a young man unknowingly has a single pill laced with fentanyl and gives it to his friend, he would be jailed, which would discourage people from calling 911 in the event of a possible overdose. .
But Republicans in Sacramento aren’t just focused on increasing penalties for fentanyl, they’re also trying to increase prison sentences for other drugs in a retrograde attempt to relitigate failed drug war policies. Under their proposals, a child with a single pill of a substance other than fentanyl would also be jailed. The reality is that mass incarceration not only wastes valuable resources, it destroys families and lives, and re-victimizes the very people who are at the forefront of this crisis.
Those policies overlook what should be the focus of our collective efforts, which is prosecuting the large-scale traffickers who are driving the larger fentanyl crisis. When we strengthen our drug laws, it should be to crack down on drug dealers who are intentionally putting large amounts of deadly fentanyl into pills and drugs that find their way into our communities. That’s why I voted twice for AB 701, which places fentanyl in the same category of controlled substance as heroin and cocaine.
To solve our fentanyl crisis, we need a smart, targeted approach that is multifaceted and based on scientific evidence about what is most effective in preventing fatal overdoses.
In addition to improving efforts to target drug dealers who make the decisions to mix and distribute drugs with fentanyl, our state needs to invest in a comprehensive health and public education system that educates young people about the deadly risks of fentanyl and manufactures test strips. and Narcan widely available. Providing test strips and Narcan to local governments, law enforcement agencies, libraries, schools, bars, clubs, and other public spaces is one of the most effective ways to reduce fatal overdoses.
We also need to significantly increase funding for substance treatment services to ensure that anyone who needs drug programs can access them. Currently, it is nearly impossible for most people to access a program that prescribes medications to treat opioid abuse.
Fortunately, there are a number of strong and comprehensive policies in the State Legislature this year centered on these proven strategies that I am happy to support. I am a co-author of AB 1060, which ensures free, universal coverage of naloxone for the treatment of opioid overdose. I supported AB 474, which strengthens cooperation between state and local law enforcement agencies to disrupt and take down fentanyl trafficking rings. I also co-authored AB 33, which will establish a task force to address fentanyl addiction and overdoses.
Ultimately, if our state can move past failed incarceration-focused approaches and address the root problems of drug abuse as the systemic crises of public health and safety issues that they are, we will have a better chance of saving lives rather than re-victimize our most affected. vulnerable communities.
Rick Chavez Zbur represents the 51st Assembly District.