How will California handle the youth fentanyl overdose crisis?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven December 9, 2022
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

How will California handle the youth fentanyl overdose crisis?

Expect a lot of debate over how California should respond to the state’s mounting fentanyl epidemic when state lawmakers return to Sacramento early next year.

Bills dealing with the super-powerful synthetic opioid are already piling up, many of them focused on youth in the wake of a stunning analysis that found fentanyl was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths among 15- to 24-year-old Californians in 2021.

Amid a surge of fentanyl overdoses on school campuses, new Republican Assemblymember Joe Patterson of Rocklin unveiled a proposal to require public K-12 schools to keep on campus Narcan, medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, the Los Angeles Times reports. Democratic state Sen. Dave Cortese of San Jose introduced a bill to create a state framework to prevent youth fentanyl overdoses, including by training school staff to administer Narcan and by asking schools to share overdose prevention information with students and parents.

  • State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond wrote in an October letter to school officials: “I encourage all local educational agencies to take immediate steps to educate students, staff, and families so that we can prevent unintended use of this deadly drug. This is also a critical moment to intervene and help youth and families who are struggling with substance abuse disorders and those who are using drugs to cope with trauma, loss, or mental illness.”

Fentanyl isn’t the only concern. Four Southern California middle school students apparently overdosed after eating marijuana-laced products Wednesday, a week after 10 Los Angeles middle schoolers evidently overdosed on cannabis edibles, according to the Associated Press. Before Halloween, state health officials warned parents to be on the lookout for possibly dangerous hemp-derived candies, noting “the number of children who are eating these products is increasing.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced nearly $481 million in grants to help overhaul California’s youth mental health system, noting that in the Golden State, “the rates of serious mental illness and substance use disorders are highest for individuals ages 18 to 25, and rates of children and youth experiencing behavioral health conditions, youth emergency department visits for mental health concerns, and youth suicides continue to rise.”

Other approaches to dealing with the fentanyl crisis — such as cracking down on dealers — could prove more difficult in the supermajority-Democratic Legislature, which tends to be hesitant about increasing criminal penalties as it eyes shuttering more state prisons.

  • Last year, for example, lawmakers rejected a proposal to permit convicted drug dealers to be charged with manslaughter or murder for selling fatal doses of fentanyl or other opiates or narcotics. They also killed a bill to increase jail time for people selling 2 grams or more of fentanyl, including those hawking it on social media.
  • Republican Assemblymember Jim Patterson of Fresno, a member of the newly created Assembly Select Committee on Fentanyl, Opioid Addiction, and Overdose Prevention, said last week he intends to introduce a similar version of the latter bill. “Since such a small amount of fentanyl can have deadly consequences, it’s vital that we change the way we hold dealers and suppliers accountable,” Patterson said in a statement.
  • Todd Gloria, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, signed an executive order in late November directing the city police department to “strengthen and prioritize enforcement for fentanyl sales-related crimes to the greatest extent possible.” Gloria also announced plans to pursue state and federal legislation that would, among other things, create sentencing enhancements for fentanyl trafficking and sales near schools.

Another approach — opening safe injection sites, where people can administer drugs using clean needles under the supervision of health professionals — may not stand much more of a chance. Angering harm reduction advocates, Newsom in August vetoed a bill that would have authorized overdose prevention pilot programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, citing concerns of “worsening drug consumption challenges.”

  • Catie Stewart, communications director for state Sen. Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat who authored the bill, told me Thursday: “Unless it was clear it wouldn’t get vetoed, the senator has no plans to reintroduce the legislation.”

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 10,726,070 confirmed cases and 96,995 deaths, according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 86,031,799 vaccine doses, and 72.4% of eligible Californians are received their primary vaccine series.


1 Newsom legal team to take over defense of gun law

California Gov. Gavin Newsom denounces the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as California Attorney General Rob Bonta, and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom watch during a news conference in Sacramento June 24, 2022. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
Gov. Gavin Newsom denounces the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and Attorney General Rob Bonta look on during a press conference in Sacramento on June 24, 2022. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

From CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher: A portion of the headline-grabbing, Texas-mimicking, U.S. Supreme Court-goading gun law proposed and signed by Gov. Newsom earlier this year will no longer be defended in court by Attorney General Rob Bonta, who revealed in a brief filed Thursday that he’s taking the unusual step of handing that duty off to the governor’s own legal team.

A little background:

  • The law, Senate Bill 1327, gives all Californians the right to sue the manufacturers, distributors or sellers of “assault weapons” and untraceable “ghost guns.”
  • Newsom trollishly introduced the bill after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a similarly structured law in Texas — which gave anyone in that state the right to sue those who “aid and abet” an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.
  • The California law also includes another feature copied from the Lone Star State: Anyone who brings a legal challenge against any gun restriction in California has to cover the government’s legal bill if they lose any of the claims they make in court.

Gun rights groups challenged California’s “fee-shifting” provision in late September, putting Bonta in a bit of a pickle: Although he was a vocal supporter of SB 1327, he had also signed a multi-state brief to the U.S. Supreme Court questioning the legality of the fee-shifting provision in the Texas abortion law, known as SB 8.

In the Thursday brief, Bonta’s office conceded it couldn’t argue both positions simultaneously. 

  • The brief: “In light of the position the Attorney General has taken regarding the nearly identical fee-shifting provision in SB 8 … (the California Department of Justice is) not in a position to defend SB 1327’s constitutionality on the merits.”

The brief added that the governor’s office would be taking over defense of the law and that Bonta’s office did not object.

2 Photo essay: California workers’ stolen time

Wage theft cases in California can take years to resolve. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Wage theft cases in California can take years to resolve. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

“It is a soul-sucking process.” Those are the words one worker used to describe pursuing a state claim to recover allegedly unpaid wages from her employer. 

In partnership with CalMatters, photojournalists working with Catchlight Local documented the experiences of eight California workers who say they weren’t fully paid for all their labor. The project, “Stolen Time: Portraits of Californians Living Through Wage Theft,” is the final installment in the CalMatters series “Unpaid Wages: A Waiting Game.” 

  • The series details how California’s attempts to crack down on wage theft continue to frustrate workers and employers alike, even though state lawmakers have for decades created some of the nation’s toughest labor laws.
  • It’s hard to measure the true scale of wage theft in California. In 2021, about 19,000 workers filed unpaid wage claims in the state for a total of more than $330 million. Past reports indicate the average claim is about $10,000. 

In the photo project, workers described the human and financial toll of their experiences, the difficulty finding an attorney to take on their claims and the long waits for their cases to resolve. Look through the stunning photos here — and listen to audio clips of the workers narrating their experiences.

3 UC strike approaches pivotal moment

UC workers strike towards the UC Center in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Striking UC workers march toward the UC Center in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

With final exams ending either this week or next at the 10 University of California campuses, the stakes of an ongoing strike by 48,000 unionized academic workers — who conduct much of the teaching, grading and research at the nation’s premier public university system — are ratcheting up as the labor action stretches into its fourth week. Faculty members are expected to withhold at least 34,000 grades across the system, according to a tally from the Council of UC Faculty Associations — potentially affecting some students’ federal financial aid status or hindering their progress toward completing major requirements. (UC Davis, for one, has assured students that non-submitted grades won’t affect their financial aid status, GPA, visa status or other situations.) And tensions are rising: Striking workers, who have declared their intent to continue “bringing our fight to (UC leaders’) offices and to their mansions,” have been cited by police for staging sit-ins. Some faculty members, meanwhile, are imploring Newsom to intervene.

  • Katie Rodger, a UC Davis lecturer and president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers Local 1474, wrote in a Monday letter to Newsom: “To allow this disruption to continue into the new year — which seems to be the UC President’s plan — has and will continue to create unnecessary chaos for UC students and faculty … We believe that the UC is pitting faculty against graduate student workers during this strike, and we ask for your relief from the impossible situation that the UC has created, which continues to harm UC students.”
  • Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC system, told the Los Angeles Times: The “vast majority of classes have continued without incident” and faculty “have significant flexibility requiring finals, as long as changes are applied consistently, and they are communicated clearly to students.”

CalMatters Commentary

Why is California fighting trauma with trauma? The state’s well-meaning program to treat adverse childhood experiences relies on a system that requires doctors to report them, even if they don’t amount to abuse. The result could cause even greater harm to children, argues Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.


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A world gone mad: Schizophrenia and a journey through California’s failed mental health system. // Los Angeles Times

To attract in-home caregivers, California offers paid training — and self-care. // California Healthline

CalPERS retirees elect longtime SEIU president to represent them on pension board. // Sacramento Bee

Old sex-abuse claims bankrupt a Bay Area Catholic diocese. Will others follow? // Mercury News

Chico State professor disciplined for student affair allegedly threatened colleagues who complained. // EdSource

California water wells are drying up in record numbers as drought worsens. // Los Angeles Times

San Jose records 61st traffic death of 2022, breaking modern record. // Mercury News

Los Angeles is second-deadliest U.S. city for pedestrians. // Los Angeles Times

Brace for higher water bills: San Diego rates may rise nearly 18 percent over next two years. // San Diego Union-Tribune

One week until California decides the fate of rooftop solar. // Los Angeles Times

Wildfire smoke can slash California solar power output by nearly a third. // Mercury News

Officials grant California’s girl request to keep unicorn. // Associated Press

See you next week


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