Fentanyl Trafficking Bill Blocked By California Assembly

By Paul Gaita 08/17/16

Governor Jerry Brown’s push to reduce California’s prison population was a key factor in the bill’s demise.

Fentanyl Trafficking Bill Blocked By California Assembly
California Assembly Meeting Room

A proposal that would have enhanced sentencing for individuals convicted of selling fentanyl stalled in the California Assembly on August 11. SB 1323, authored by state Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Nigel), would stiffen penalties for trafficking large amounts of the synthetic opioid—which has been linked to thousands of deaths between 2013 and 2016, including the iconic musician Prince—and would place it on par with crimes involving heroin and cocaine.

Had the bill passed, it would have added three to at least 25 years to sentences for individuals convicted of selling or trafficking fentanyl, based on the amount of the drug involved. But the bill was halted on August 11 when the Assembly Appropriations committee voted against forward movement, effectively killing the bill.

In a statement issued after the vote, Bates said that Governor Jerry Brown’s push to reduce California’s prison population was a key factor in the bill’s demise. “Unfortunately, the governor’s focus on decreasing the state’s prison population has made it difficult to pass any legislation that would address weaknesses in current criminal law,” she noted. “Given fentanyl’s deadly potency, the law should treat fentanyl trafficking the same as heroin and cocaine. Today’s decision is a sad setback for law enforcement efforts to go after big-time fentanyl dealers.”

Though the California Senate Committee on Public Safety voted unanimously to move forward with SB 1323 in April of this year, the bill was not without its opponents. Both the California Public Defenders Association and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California opposed the measure. Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU’s Sacramento office, called the bill well-intentioned but “not the solution,” adding that increased penalties would not deter sales or use of the drug, and would siphon funds from treatment and rehabilitation efforts. 

Representatives from California law enforcement attempted to counter such criticism by noting that the bill focused on high-level dealers, not street sellers or users. “I do believe it’s a deterrent. We are targeting major narcotics dealers who are in it for the money and don’t care how many lives are lost,” said Captain Stu Greenberg of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which supported the bill after four overdose deaths were reported in Orange County in 2015. These incidents, along with the wave of fentanyl-related deaths that swept through Sacramento in 2016, were seen as bolstering support for the bill, but the Assembly committee vote effectively neutralized any possible forward momentum.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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