Homeless people stand on the sidewalk among alleged drug dealers in San Francisco on Feb. 23, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
California lawmakers want to crack down on mass fentanyl distributors, and with the governor’s approval, a new bill will impose enhancements to those caught with one kilogram or more of the deadly drug, and will add three to 25 years of imprisonment to their sentencing.
Under current law, selling or distributing heroin, cocaine, crack, and certain opiates—including fentanyl—carries a felony term of three, four or five years. Those convicted of selling heroin, cocaine, or cocaine-based drugs—such as crack—in possession of one kilogram or more face what are known as sentencing enhancements.
Assembly Bill 701, authored by Assemblymembers Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) and Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton), would add fentanyl to the list to receive such weight-based enhancements.
The bill passed the Senate Sept. 12 in a vote 38 to 0, and the Assembly Sept. 13 in a vote of 78 to 0, and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
If signed into law, three years can be added to one’s term when convicted of selling one kilogram or more of fentanyl. Ten kilograms faces an additional 10 years; 40 kilograms, 20 years and 80 kilograms or more, 25 years.
By adding fentanyl to the list of drugs with such enhancements, the bill would update California law, which only targets dealers with large quantities of the drug, according to a Senate analysis.
The bill will “clear up any ambiguity and state with certainty that possession of such large amounts of fentanyl is indeed punishable to the same extent as the same conduct involving heroin,”authors of the bill said in an Assembly analysis.
The various forms of fentanyl. (Courtesy of the University of Houston)
Fentanyl-related deaths in California increased more than 800 percent between 2012 and 2018, from 82 to 786 deaths according to the analysis, citing data from the state’s department of public health.
In 2021, however, that number jumped to 5,961 deaths, according to the department’s overdose surveillance dashboard
—which provides statewide and local level data on drug related overdoses.
Under current law, those convicted of drug offenses that involve combinations of heroin and fentanyl or cocaine and fentanyl are already subject to the weight enhancements.
AB 701 addresses situations where those found with fentanyl or fentanyl-mixed substances in excess of one kilogram would be subject to the enhancements provided for heroin, cocaine, and cocaine-based drugs.
“Treating fentanyl possession in amounts exceeding a kilogram differently under the law from the possession of the same excessive amounts of heroin does not serve public safety, nor does it make sense given the potency and danger of fentanyl as compared with heroin in particular,” the authors of the bill said in an analysis.
They said a kilogram of fentanyl has the potential for 30 to 90 thousand personal uses, which demonstrates large-scale trafficking.
“Possession of these types of significant amounts of this dangerous drug becomes even more profitable when such possession is not punishable to the same extent as is possession of the same exorbitant amount of heroin, its opiate cousin,” they said.
Posters of drug overdose victims in Santa Ana, Calif, on Nov. 9, 2021. (Drew Van Voorhis/The Epoch Times)
The California District Attorneys Association—representing 3,000 prosecutors statewide—argued in support of the bill.
“[C]urrent law does not adequately address the ever-increasing threat posed by cartels and organized crime. Currently, possession of large-scale amounts from over a kilo to over 80 kilos of cocaine, crack, and heroin are eligible for enhancement punishments under the law, but fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, is not explicitly eligible for that increased punishment. AB 701 would resolve this inconsistency,” the organization wrote in support of the bill.
Others in support, in part, include Attorney General Rob Bonta, the California State Sheriffs’ Association—a nonprofit supporting California’s 58 sheriffs—the county of Orange, and the cities of Bakersfield and Norwalk.
Fifth District Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley told The Epoch Times the bill is a good first step to address the fentanyl issue.
“While it is certainly good that AB 701 passed in the Legislature, Sacramento still has a long way to go after years of failed efforts to address fentanyl in a meaningful way. I hope AB 701 … is a first step for our state to take additional action so we hold accountable those who destroy our communities and kill our kids,” she said in a statement Sept. 14.
A poster of candy-like fentanyl sits in Irvine, Calif., on April 28, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Those opposed include the California Public Defenders Association, Drug Policy Alliance—a nonprofit advocating for a regulated drug market—and the Sisters Warriors Freedom Coalition—a nonprofit of over 5,000 women and those that are transgender advocating for policies against criminalization and imprisonment.
The association of public defenders, wrote in their opposition statement that the bill relies on an “outdated War on Drugs mentality,” and would create more harm than good through imprisoning drug dealers, which they say doesn’t reduce drug use.
“When a drug seller is incarcerated, the supply of drugs is not reduced nor is the drug market impacted. Because the drug market is driven by demand rather than supply, research indicates that an incarcerated seller will simply be replaced by another individual to fill the market demand,” they wrote.
They further argued imposing such harsh sentences could discourage drug users and dealers from seeking help during an overdose.
“Rather than diminishing the harms of drug misuse, criminalizing people who sell and use drugs amplifies the risk of fatal overdoses and diseases, increases stigma and marginalization, and drives people away from needed treatment, health, and harm reduction services,” they wrote.