The fentanyl crisis in this country is real. People from all walks of life are dying from overdoses in alarming numbers. California legislators had a chance to pass groundbreaking legislation that would have handed down serious sentences to drug dealers who supplied fentanyl. Of course, your elected leaders decided to side with drug dealers and struck down this legislation in committee.
The message was clear. California political leaders did not care if people died from fentanyl overdoses, and they certainly didn’t care enough to punish more severely those who sell this devastating drug.
But what is fentanyl? Why is it so dangerous to public safety and damaging to communities across the nation?
Fentanyl began as a medicine. First synthesized in 1959, it was designed to work as an anesthetic for cancer patients. Most opioids at that time came from the opium poppy plant, whose properties produced a variety of effects on the brain, including pain relief and a feeling of euphoria. But fentanyl was a synthetic opioid, cheaper to produce than traditional opioids — and far more potent. In fact, fentanyl was 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Because of its potency, medical professionals could use far less fentanyl and achieve the same pain relief in their patients, which reduced cost. It also took far less time to produce.
Within nine years of its creation, fentanyl was being supplied to medical facilities around the world. By 2017, fentanyl was the most widely used synthetic opioid in medicine. In its pure form and prescribed dosage, fentanyl is rarely fatal. However, because of its powerful opioid properties, its potential for abuse was great.
Criminals saw the money to be made selling illegally made fentanyl, which was 20 times more profitable to drug cartels than heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine because of its potency and reduced production time. Fentanyl is also easier to conceal for smuggling across the border from Mexico, where the vast majority of illegally manufactured fentanyl was produced.
By 2013, fentanyl was disrupting the North American market for illegal narcotics, and every year saw an almost exponential increase in fentanyl smuggling. In 2021, seizures of fentanyl increased 134 percent, just from the prior year. No less than 11,201 pounds of fentanyl were ultimately seized last year — enough to kill every single American nearly seven times over.
Drug dealers began to mix fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, to maximize the high a user felt and also to prolong supplies of the “traditional” narcotics drug users still preferred. “Cutting” heroin or cocaine with fentanyl increased profit margins as drug dealers charged the same price for controlled substances cut with fentanyl. Naturally, users were not told they were purchasing drugs mixed with fentanyl and were none the wiser.
However, when fentanyl was mixed with other narcotics, the overall potency was maximized because fentanyl is so much stronger than traditional opioids. When drug users unwittingly used the same amount of fentanyl-laced heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine they were accustomed to in their non-fentanyl-laced drugs, the results were simply catastrophic. In 2016, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were the most common cause of overdose deaths in the United States. The numbers continue to stagger the imagination. Between November 2020 to November 2021, more than 100,000 deaths in the United States were related to drug overdoses, and almost all overdose deaths in the United States were due exclusively to fentanyl. That’s almost double the number of overdose deaths from 2015.
Overdose deaths now outnumber car crash and gun fatalities combined.
Ventura County has not been spared its own fentanyl overdose crisis. In 2021, Ventura County saw nearly 300 overdose deaths, a 132 percent increase from just five years ago.
In 2011, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 109, which made it nearly impossible to imprison drug dealers. California’s efforts to decriminalize drug crimes continued over the next several years when penalties for drug use and drug possession were reduced to such a point that many counties didn’t even bother filing those charges anymore. With no penalties for drug use and ridiculously low penalties for drug sales, there was nothing law enforcement could do to stem the tide of the illegal fentanyl trade and its tragic side effects.
This year, however, legislators had a chance to step up and do something right. Criticizing the Legislature’s lack of urgency to address the fentanyl crisis, Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris of Irvine introduced Assembly Bill 2246, which would have dramatically increased the punishment for the distribution and possession of fentanyl. The proposal also would have allowed prosecutors to pursue a sentence of 20 years to life for any drug dealer who distributed fentanyl that resulted in a deadly overdose.
At the same time, Senate Bill 1350 was introduced, which would have required that if a subject were convicted of selling fentanyl, he or she would be given notice that selling it was “extremely dangerous” and that if someone died as a result, the subject could be charged with voluntary manslaughter or murder.
These bills would have been powerful first steps in combating the fentanyl crisis and would have given prosecutors some of the tools they need to try to keep this dangerous narcotic off the streets. However, given the current slate of legislators, these bills never had a chance. Assembly Bill 2246 failed in committee on April 19. One week later, on April 26, Senate Bill 1350 suffered the same fate.
What a disheartening time it is to live in this state. Despite the overt dangers fentanyl poses to all communities, California political leaders loudly proclaim that they do not care. How many times are we, as citizens, supposed to sit back and watch our elected leaders favor criminals, even murderers, over the welfare and safety of law-abiding citizens? How many people need to die before these so-called leaders learn that lives are more important than agendas?
The only way to send that message is to vote these political leaders out of office. Let their lack of concern for the health and safety of their constituents be their legacy as they are shown the door in November.
John Barrick has worked as a prosecutor in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office for more than 16 years, prosecuting some of the most violent crimes committed in the county. He currently serves in the Major Crimes-Homicide Unit.