California Democrats Block Bills Increasing Penalties For Fentanyl Crimes

California Democrats considered two bills that would increase penalties for crimes relating to fentanyl but then blocked any such legislation.

With fentanyl-overdose deaths increasing in California, the State Assembly public safety committee blocked two bills that would have tightened punishments for dealers who kill or injure people with fentanyl or are caught with enough of the drug to kill thousands of people.

The committee also loosened a proposed ban on dealers carrying guns before blocking the legislation and a measure to increase penalties for fentanyl trafficking.

“Despite all the talk, the extremist legislators who opposed these bills guaranteed that innocent Californians will continue to die, victims of drug dealers profiting off poisoning our communities,” Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher said in a statement after the hearing.

“These bills were not criminalizing addiction, returning to the ‘war on drugs,’ or any other lie told by the pro-fentanyl lobbyists. They were reasonable, bipartisan proposals to save lives,” Gallagher added.

Despite public pressure, California Democrats signaled they would remain committed to reducing criminal penalties for drug-related crimes, which are responsible for more deaths in California than in any other state.

The Democratic committee agreed to hold hearings on the bills targeting fentanyl dealers after Republicans threatened to force a floor vote on the measures. It recently struck down a bipartisan bill that would have allowed law enforcement officials to advise fentanyl dealers that their pills can be deadly.

During the committee’s hearing, Democrats went against allegations that they oppose action to address the fentanyl crisis. Several lawmakers likened the bills to the “war on drugs” while touting “harm reduction” programs as a better option to jailing fentanyl dealers.

“We are doing something,” said assemblywoman Mia Bonta, the wife of California attorney general Rob Bonta, citing California’s $61 billion investment in harm reduction programs, including widespread distribution of overdose medication and test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs.

“Not enough, but we have been doing something,” Bonta added.

Public safety committee chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D) pointed to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) new directive for state police officers to begin coordinating crackdowns on fentanyl traffickers.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson criticized Democrats’ harm reduction plan as inadequate.

“The reality is that we have dealers in Fresno with 2,000 pills, that the worst you can do is a misdemeanor,” Patterson told the panel. “They’re out in two days. If we really cared about the addicts, wouldn’t we also care that their dealers are out on the street, churning more and more?”

The committee advanced three measures against fentanyl dealers: one boosting their sentences to match those of cocaine and heroin sellers, another to encourage law enforcement cooperation against dealers and a third to launch a task force studying fentanyl trafficking.