Showdown on California fentanyl bills
During a dramatic hearing Thursday at the state Capitol, seven fentanyl measures finally received a verdict: Four bills passed, but the two most sweeping failed and a third was put on hold.
Watching closely: Grieving families who lost loved ones to fentanyl poisoning, recovering addicts and advocates for criminal justice reform. To get inside the cramped hearing room, many lined up for more than an hour before the Assembly public safety committee convened — a hearing held after pressure from Republicans and some Democrats.
Kellie Amaru, from Willows, said she lost her son Ryan when he was 27 to a fentanyl overdose and said she was disappointed with the committee.
- Amaru: “I’m afraid it’s all talk. They’re just trying to make political points. They got to realize that some of us are actually voters.”
Much of the committee’s debate centered on a key policy choice: Is it better to treat the fentanyl crisis, which killed 5,722 people in California in 2021, as a public health issue? Or is it a public safety emergency where harsher punishments could deter drug dealers?
While lawmakers agreed that there was no one solution, Democrats on the committee pushed back on the bills to increase sentences, warning that such policies mirrored the mass incarceration that followed the 1980s “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities.
- Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Los Angeles Democrat and chairperson of the committee: “I was a mortician during the crack cocaine crisis. I’m not a mortician right now because of the crack cocaine crisis… Our communities were decimated by the War on Drugs.”
All but one of the bills were authored by Democrats. But two bills to increase penalties that failed to advance were only supported by the two Republicans on the committee, Juan Alanis from Modesto and Tom Lackey from Palmdale. Soon after the votes, the Assembly Republican Caucus slammed legislators they called “radical Democrats” and accused them of siding with drug dealers.
- Jim Patterson, Fresno Republican and author of one of the rejected bills: “If we really care about the addicts, wouldn’t we also care that their dealers are on the street churning more and more?… If there are not consequences, there will be repeat supply available.”
The four bills that passed (just beating today’s deadline for policy committees to approve bills that also need the blessing of a fiscal committee):
- AB 33 to establish a task force to address fentanyl addiction and overdoses;
- AB 474 to prioritize cooperation between state and local law enforcement to crack down on fentanyl trafficking;
- AB 675 to make it illegal to carry a gun while in possession of fentanyl;
- AB 701 to increase fines for dealers by putting fentanyl in the same category as heroin and cocaine.
The three bills that did not advance:
- AB 367 to add sentencing enhancements for those who seriously injure or kill through fentanyl poisoning;
- AB 955 to increase penalties for dealers who sell fentanyl over social media (held for study);
- AB 1058 to increase penalties for those possessing a large amount of fentanyl.
CalMatters covers the Capitol: CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 A retreat on housing?
From CalMatters housing reporter Ben Christopher:
After years of holding firm in a debate that has divided organized labor and stymied the Legislature’s ability to address California’s housing crisis, the State Building and Construction Trades Council came to the bargaining table on Wednesday just a week after its coalition of unionized construction workers showed signs of splintering.
Since 2020, the Trades Council, one of the most formidable voices in state housing policy, has insisted that any new housing construction bill come with “skilled and trained workforce” requirements that force housing developers to ensure that a certain percentage of their construction crews are graduates of apprenticeship programs. More than 90% of grads come from union-run programs.
Early this year, San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener introduced a bill to make permanent his 2017 law that fast tracks the permitting process for apartment developments in many parts of the state. Version 2.0 of the bill strips “skilled and trained workforce” language over concerns that there aren’t enough unionized construction workers to do the work. The Trades Council demanded that he put the language back in.
But as the Senate Governance and Finance Committee debated the bill on Wednesday, Beverly Yu, a lobbyist with the trades, put forward a new and surprising idea.
According to a draft of the trades’ new “residential workforce standard” language, obtained by CalMatters, developers on fast-tracked projects would still face stringent hiring guidelines. But “trained” workers could be either apprenticeship graduates or non-grads with equivalent work experience. And though projects would have to try to hire a certain number of apprentices, they’d be allowed to hire elsewhere if no apprentices are available.
- Yu: The new standard “starts to address the issues that folks have raised and also helps accomplish our shared goals.”
On Thursday, Yu stressed that the draft language was preliminary and could change in the coming weeks.
But during Wednesday’s hearing, Wiener gave the idea a chilly response, stressing that he’d only seen the proposal for the first time “48 hours” earlier, that other supporters “have concerns” and that the bill goes before its next committee in two and a half weeks.
- Wiener: “For three years I have been asking the trades to come to the table. Three. Years…I’m not super optimistic that in two and a half weeks, after three years of this, we’re going to somehow come to that resolution.”
2 The long reach of COVID
For most of the world, the worst of the pandemic appears to have come and gone. But of the estimated 1.5 million Californians who suffer from long COVID, their debilitating health issues are far from over.
As CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang writes, the more than 200 symptoms that fall under long COVID are “ill-defined” and vague. Patients, known as long haulers, have difficulty with fatigue, blood circulation and inflammation.
But unlike during the peak of the pandemic when every level of government scrambled to provide public health support, long haulers face a scarcity of medical resources when seeking treatment. They aren’t always taken seriously by doctors, they have difficulty receiving disability payments for their illness and specialized clinics are overwhelmed and understaffed.
- Ibrahim Rashid, a long COVID patient: “It’s a pandemic of loneliness and social isolation and rejection.”
Currently, there is no legislative proposal that addresses long COVID. A budget request to increase clinic capacity died last year, and plans to renew the measure are doubtful given the looming state budget deficit.
The state’s Department of Public Health does plan to establish a new branch that would support long COVID research, funded by combining money from last year with the seed money from the state’s $1.8 billion long-term COVID-19 preparedness plan. But ongoing funding is tenuous given the state budget crunch.
For the most part, fighting for resources falls to long haulers themselves or their family members. But that’s an uphill battle for those struggling with the condition.
- Lisa McCorkell, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collective: “One of the big issues with long COVID…is that the people who are the most motivated to do something about it have the least amount of energy and ability to cause a scene.”
In other public health news: A new state audit faults the California Department of Public Health in its collection of data on sexual orientation and gender identity and says that the shortcomings have “limited its ability to identify and address health disparities” affecting the LGBTQ community.
The audit recommends that the department standardize its 129 forms that collect demographic data and that the Legislature change the law to require the department to collect the sexual orientation information from local health departments, and also to require an annual report to the public.
Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat and author of a 2020 law that is part of the audit, called its findings “extremely concerning” and said he’s considering legislation to implement its findings. In a statement, he said the department’s failures likely hurt its response to last year’s monkeypox outbreak, when gay and bisexual men made up nearly all the cases.
- Tony Hoang, executive director of Equality California, in a statement: “While we have come a long way from the days when our community was ravaged by HIV and AIDS, we see time and time again the need for this information. We witnessed this during the COVID-19 pandemic and just last year during the MPOX outbreak. There is still nowhere near enough being done to collect accurate and complete information to ensure that our policies to reduce health disparities are driven by data.”
In its response, the department acknowledges it needs to make improvements and pledges to “continue to strive to achieve and improve compliance in our data collection efforts and overall use of data to advance health equity in California.”
3 Hearing sets stage for EV vote
From CalMatters environment reporter Nadia Lopez:
California’s air board convened Thursday for a two-day meeting to consider a mandate that would have a sweeping effect on the state’s economy and its environment: It would overhaul how goods are transported throughout the state by banning sales of new diesel big rigs by 2036 and converting large companies’ existing trucks to zero emissions by 2042.
More than 160 people lined up in-person and virtually to speak to the California Air Resources Board during the hearing, which went into the night. The board is expected to vote by midday today.
A worldwide first, the rules would aim to clean up diesel exhaust and greenhouse gases spewed by big rigs, garbage trucks, delivery trucks and other large vehicles by converting them to models powered by electricity or hydrogen. Ending diesel’s decades-long foothold on the economy, the rule would affect about 1.8 million trucks that operate statewide.
Environmental justice groups and members of the public told the board about the heavy toll of diesel exhaust in their communities.
- Tania Gonzalez, an environmental justice advocate and resident of Fontana in San Bernardino County: “We deserve better, we deserve the right to clean air. I’m asking you today to put our lives over profit.”
But trucking companies, local leaders and utilities said the deadlines are unachievable because the technology is new, expensive and has multiple drawbacks.
- Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association, an industry trade group: “If the rule moves forward…you are going to see a lot of the same problems that we had during the pandemic. It’s a supply chain crisis of our own making.”
To model Norway’s prison system, Gov. Gavin Newsom will have to do much more than transform San Quentin State Prison, write Shervin Aazami, strategy and development manager, and Emiliano Lopez, data and communications manager, for Initiate Justice Action.
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