In summary

The rise of fentanyl overdose deaths is a crisis, and California public safety policy has failed to keep up. In absence of a state law, ask your local district attorney to issue notices to convicted dealers that they could be charged with murder if someone dies from fentanyl they supplied.

By Nathan Hochman, Special to CalMatters

Nathan Hochman, a Republican, formerly served as a U.S. assistant attorney general. He is running for California attorney general in the 2022 election, press@nathanhochman.com.

There is a silent assassin roaming the streets of California and targeting our children and young adults. This assassin does not see race, ethnicity, religion, party affiliation, gender, sexual orientation or income — it is an equal-opportunity, lethal killer. The synthetic opioid fentanyl has murdered thousands of Californians a year. 

This executioner comes mainly from China and is schooled by the Mexican drug cartels; it is so powerful that it can kill instantly with a dose as small as two grains of sand; it operates under clever disguises so you can never see it before it strikes; and it can replicate itself in a lab a million times over. 

The spread of fentanyl is a crisis, and public safety policy in our state has failed to keep up. Since 2018, fentanyl overdose deaths in California have nearly quadrupled. Fentanyl accounts for more than a third of overdose deaths. We cannot allow fentanyl dealers to continue to spread their poison in our communities. We need solutions.

A good place to start would have been the passage of Senate Bill 350, which would have required notice to convicted fentanyl dealers that if they commit that crime again and someone dies, they could be charged with voluntary manslaughter or murder. State Senate Democrats killed SB 350 in March, arguing that any sentencing enhancement is necessarily wrong because it may increase incarceration for convicted fentanyl dealers.

The proposal, from state Sen. Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), was known as Alexandra’s Law, named after Alexandra Capelouto, a 20-year-old college student who died when she unknowingly purchased a counterfeit Oxycodone pill deceptively sold to her by a drug dealer using a social media platform.

SB 350 does not target users or first-time fentanyl dealers; it does not impose mandatory minimum sentences; and it does not force a prosecutor to charge a convicted fentanyl dealer with voluntary manslaughter or murder. Instead, this law seeks to prevent first-time fentanyl dealers from becoming second-time fentanyl dealers so that innocent lives are saved. 

Since March, I have worked with district attorneys in Yolo, El Dorado, San Luis Obispo and Riverside counties to implement Alexandra notices on a local level.

Fentanyl is not cannabis or marijuana. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is illegally made in unregulated drug labs and deceptively added to or misrepresented as other drugs. It hides inside fake or counterfeit Oxycodone, Percocet, Adderall and Xanax pills (“fentapills”) or in other tainted drugs such as cocaine. Drug dealers spread its poison using social media to reach its victims.

The numbers don’t lie. In its 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that fentanyl was responsible for more than half of the drug-related deaths in California and the country. More than 1,200 kilograms (1.2 billion milligrams) of illicit fentanyl was seized coming over our southern border — that is enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in the United States twice over.

Statewide change will only come if victims’ family members, friends and concerned citizens demand reform. Reach out to your county’s district attorney and request the adoption of Alexandra notices at the local level.

I also hope community members will share their stories and concerns with their legislative representatives and insist the state Senate reconsider its opposition to SB 350.

Alexandra notices won’t solve the fentanyl crisis, but they are a critical first step to bringing justice to those responsible. We need families affected by the fentanyl crisis to be heard to help end this epidemic.

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