Five hours in the California fentanyl crisis

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La May 25, 2023
Presented by UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, FIX PAGA: A Better, Fairer Way for Workers and Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership

Five hours in the California fentanyl crisis

On an average day in California, about 18 people die due to overdoses from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. That works out to nearly four people every five hours.

In that same five-hour period, legislators on Wednesday heard the sad account of a grieving mother, analyses from local officials and researchers and even one admission of teenage cannabis usage from an Assemblymember.

The marathon mega meeting on California’s fentanyl crisis — the first for a new select Assembly committee — addressed four different aspects: addiction, public health, education and law enforcement response. But Republicans, who have complained loudly that bills to increase penalties on drug dealers are going nowhere, cast doubt that the hearing put enough emphasis on accountability and public safety. Ahead of the hearing, Assembly Republicans unveiled an online fentanyl death counter.

  • Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a Modesto Republican, in a statement: “If I could describe today’s hearing in one word it would be: ‘frustrating.’ Today’s special hearing was a lot of talk and once again short on any real action.”

Laura Didier, an outreach coordinator at a nonprofit, recounted the story of her son who died from fentanyl poisoning.

  • Didier: “There are no words to express the excruciating pain of losing someone so young, so precious, with such promise, to a danger you didn’t even know existed…. Fentanyl has irreversibly changed the drug landscape into this nightmare that we are witnessing today.”

Legislators questioned experts, local officials and each other about the best way to tackle the problem. Republicans argued that prevention and harm reduction would only go so far against dealers and traffickers.

  • Assemblymember Joe Patterson, a Granite Bay Republican: “(They) aren’t going to benefit from some of these addiction treatments that we have. They’re not going to benefit from education either. They don’t care. They’re criminals and they should be punished for it.”

In response, Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine, said that locking up street-corner drug dealers will only fill up prisons and not do anything “to alter the course of drug markets.”

  • Humphreys: “You can find a new street-corner drug dealer faster than you can fill a job flipping burgers. And we did that in the ’80s and ’90s and it had no positive effect and it destroyed a lot of communities who were disproportionately punished.”

And when Brendon Woods, the chief public defender in Alameda County, was asked directly if increasing punishments would deter fentanyl dealers, he said no.

  • Woods: “We cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis…. Not one of the people who we represent are thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m not going to sell X because I’m going to be sentenced to prison for 20 years.’”

From increased drug use and distribution to the lack of adequate treatment, frustrations ran high as legislators pointed out the state’s various failings in the fentanyl crisis, which continues to worsen through the year.

  • Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, a Bakersfield Democrat: “Are we going to keep having these committee meetings every single six months when a new drug emerges?…. We’ve submerged our culture with drugs. But where is the access to treatment for our people?”

Police shootings panel: The next CalMatters event is June 13 and focuses on Attorney General Rob Bonta’s investigations into police killings of unarmed civilians. “Fatal Shootings: California’s Bid to Police Its Police” will be moderated by CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara, who has been tracking these cases. Sign up here to attend in-person or virtually.


1 Cal State looking to increase tuition

Kevin Wehr, California Faculty Association's Vice President and Professor at California State University - Sacramento, speaks to Presidents at CSU, Leadership, and the Board of Trustees during public comment to ask for fair wages outside the CSU Chancellor's office in Long Beach on May 23, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Kevin Wehr, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, speaks to CSU trustees in Long Beach on May 23, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

California State University has some of the lowest tuition and fees in the country, helping it achieve its status as a driver of social mobility. But because of a huge budget shortfall, what would be only the second tuition hike in 12 years could upend that standing.

As CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn writes, the university’s revenues cover only about 86% of the system’s overall costs. That’s a gap of nearly $1.5 billion in 2021-22, not including CSU’s roughly $6 billion backlog in construction maintenance projects.

As a result, the chancellor’s office will present a tuition hike to the board in July. If the board approves the tuition hike by September, it could kick in as early as fall 2024.

One report by leaders of the university estimated a tuition increase of $5,000 or $8,000 over a five-year period by 2030 for new undergraduates (students are currently charged an average of $7,550 for tuition and fees). But that bump would generate between $150 million and $200 million in its first year — not enough to fully cover Cal State’s spending gap.

For more on the university’s latest report on its finances, read the rest of Mikhail’s story.

More CSU news: Trustees received more bad news Wednesday: An outside report says that CSU systematically fails in handling sexual misconduct cases

The chancellor’s office doesn’t track them and doesn’t investigate many of them, the report says. Not surprisingly, there’s widespread distrust among students and faculty.

“Many of these report findings are difficult to hear,” said interim Chancellor Jolene Koester, according to the Los Angeles Times, which has reported on inconsistencies in how these cases are handled and instances where allegations weren’t investigated by the chancellor’s office.

The report recommends a more aggressive approach by the chancellor, plus creating a group of trained investigators to help campuses. CSU commissioned the report after the February 2022 resignation of former Chancellor Joseph Castro over his handling, while chancellor of Fresno State, of allegations of misconduct and retaliation against a top official.

2 The curious case of Catherine Blakespear

Sen. Catherine Blakespear of the California Legislature. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
State Sen. Catherine Blakespear. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr.

Lawyers are expensive. Perhaps no one in the Legislature knows this better than Sen. Catherine Blakespear, who appears to be the only California legislator with an active legal defense fund

As CalMatters’ political reporter Alexei Koseff explains, the first-term Democrat from Encinitas is raising big bucks from interest groups to cover bills from an ongoing lawsuit related to her time as the city’s mayor, when she blocked a group of Encinitas residents from her Facebook page who criticized her.

The case began in April 2022, and after the group demanded she unblock them, Blakespear agreed to issue a public apology and pay $5,000 in attorney fees. In September, when she was campaigning for the Senate seat, the residents sued Blakespear, alleging she violated the terms of the settlement.

Blakespear has since filed a countersuit, dropped the countersuit, won a motion to have the claims against her dismissed, and been awarded attorneys’ fees. But she also accrued more than $95,000 in unpaid bills from a prominent law firm and is now raising funds to pay those bills. 

Some of the contributions found by Alexei included $5,500 from the Pechanga Band of Indians, as well as more than $45,000 in non-monetary legal services from the California Democratic Party.

Blakespear defended fundraising for her legal bills while serving as a legislator, saying that because the lawsuit is politically motivated, it’s “obviously related.”

3 Did abortion issue pay off for CA Dems?

Graduate student Alex Mabanta, California State Controller Betty Yee and controller candidate Malia Cohen (right to left) attend a pro-Proposition 1 rally at UC Berkeley in November. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Graduate student Alex Mabanta, State Controller Betty Yee and Democratic controller candidate Malia Cohen (right to left) attend a pro-Proposition 1 rally at UC Berkeley in November. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

California Democrats counted on the abortion issue to drive voters to the polls last year after Roe v. Wade was overturned. They even placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot to protect reproductive rights, and it was approved by two-thirds of voters. 

But how well did that strategy work? 

In a new study of the 2022 electorate, the Public Policy Institute of California found that turnout, compared to the 2020 presidential election, dropped more among women (30 percentage points) than among men (27 points). Turnout also declined more among registered Democrats (30 points) than Republicans (24 points). (Turnout plummeted even more among voters of color, especially Latinos.)

  • The report: “While abortion seemed to mobilize Democrats and women in some parts of the country, that effect may not extend to California. Californians support access to abortion, but that access is not currently under threat and so may not drive voting decisions here.”

And that may help explain why Democrats didn’t do better: The party lost two congressional seats, helping flip control of the U.S. House to Republicans, though it did gain three seats in the Legislature and keep control of all partisan statewide offices.

But you could also argue that without the abortion issue, Democrats would have fared even worse.

Predicting who turns out to vote is more of an art than a science. So those trends may not continue into 2024, especially since the electorate is typically more diverse in a presidential election, the report says.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Dianne Feinstein’s return to the Senate did not stop the calls for her resignation, which would create a political trap for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California needs to simplify the financial aid process for undocumented students, writes Leo Rodriguez, a UC Berkeley student who served on the California Student Aid Commission.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

How one woman fought bigotry and helped Asian Americans // Los Angeles Times

Seibel Newsom, advocates demand social media companies protect youth // CBS Sacramento

Officials warn residents to stay out of California’s faster, colder rivers // CapRadio

As water levels drop, the risk of arsenic rises // California Healthline

California wants to store floodwaters underground, but it isn’t easy // NPR

Why population losses hit NorCal cities harder than SoCal // Los Angeles Times

Former San Diego official hired as governor’s senior homeless advisor // The San Diego Union-Tribune

SF Mayor London Breed joins calls for BART, Muni bailout // San Francisco Chronicle

How downtown Oakland compares to struggling San Francisco // San Francisco Chronicle

Ghost Ship warehouse where dozens died, razed. What will happen? // East Bay Times

City Council votes to accept controversial LAPD robot dog // Los Angeles Times

SF will be more aggressive with people struggling with addiction // San Francisco Chronicle

Survivors of solitary confinement face Gov. Newsom’s veto pen // Bolts Mag

Inside Hollywood writers’ guerrilla tactics to shut down live shows // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow


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