Progressive California lawmakers bent to political pressure and revived a handful of bills this week to crack down on fentanyl dealers—only to turn around and kill or weaken most of the measures.
With overdose deaths accelerating in California, the State Assembly public safety committee on Thursday blocked two of the bills, which would have strengthened punishments for dealers who kill or seriously injure someone with fentanyl or are caught with enough of the synthetic drug to kill thousands of people. The panel also loosened a proposed ban on dealers carrying guns before punting the bill along with a measure to increase penalties for fentanyl trafficking on social media.
"Despite all the talk, the extremist legislators who opposed these bills guaranteed that innocent Californians will continue to die, victims of drug dealers profiting off poisoning our communities," Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher said in a statement after the hearing. "These bills were not criminalizing addiction, returning to the ‘war on drugs,’ or any other lie told by the pro-fentanyl lobbyists. They were reasonable, bipartisan proposals to save lives."
California Democrats, who dominate the state legislature and government, signaled once again on Thursday that they remain committed to a years-long progressive push to roll back criminal penalties for drug-related crimes. That’s despite public pressure to do something about the fentanyl epidemic, which has killed more people in California than in any other state.
The Assembly's public safety committee only agreed to even debate the bills targeting fentanyl dealers after Republican lawmakers last week threatened to force a floor vote on the measures.
On Tuesday, the California Senate public safety committee—which like its Assembly counterpart is stacked with progressives—voted down for the second time a bipartisan bill that would have let law enforcement advise fentanyl dealers that their pills can be deadly. If those dealers sold fentanyl again and killed someone, they could have then faced second-degree murder charges. A similar law for drunk drivers has been on the books for years.
During Thursday's hearing in the Assembly, Democrats were often on defense against allegations that they simply oppose action to address the fentanyl crisis. Several progressive lawmakers unfavorably likened the bills on offer to the war on drugs and touted "harm reduction" programs as a superior alternative to jailing fentanyl dealers.
"We are doing something," said assemblywoman Mia Bonta (D.), the wife of California attorney general Rob Bonta, citing California’s $61 billion investment in harm reduction programs, including widespread distribution of overdose medication and test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs. "Not enough, but we have been doing something."
Public safety committee chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D.) pointed to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new directive for California police officers to start coordinating crackdowns on fentanyl traffickers. Newsom, who has not weighed in on the fentanyl legislation, left the state just ahead of the hearings.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, the only Republican to present a bill to the committee, criticized Democrats’ harm reduction approach as inadequate.
"The reality is that we have dealers in Fresno with 2,000 pills, that the worst you can do is a misdemeanor," he told the panel. "They’re out in two days. If we really cared about the addicts, wouldn’t we also care that their dealers are out on the street, churning more and more?"
The committee did advance three relatively incremental measures against fentanyl dealers: one to boost their sentences to match those of cocaine and heroin sellers; another to push law enforcement cooperation against them; and a third to launch a task force to study fentanyl trafficking.
Jones-Sawyer promised a follow-up hearing in May to look at a "holistic" strategy that includes more money for treatment, education, and overdose medication.