Health & Medicine

California Senate panel backs stiffer sentencing for fentanyl

Death is 'collateral damage' for fentanyl dealers

The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."
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The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."

With Sacramento’s fentanyl-related overdoses at center stage, a state Senate committee unanimously approved the first step in stiffening penalties for major drug traffickers in California who sell large amounts of the potentially lethal painkiller.

Calling fentanyl the “emerging go-to drug for cartels,” state Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said the bill SB 1323 is needed to “cut the head off” organizations of major drug traffickers, who are believed to be importing fentanyl and its synthetic cousins over the border from Mexico and possibly Canada.

At every step, lawmakers and others noted the recent spike in fentanyl-related cases in the Sacramento area, which now total 42 overdoses and 10 deaths. Among the victims was Jerome Butler, a south Sacramento father of three children, who died last Wednesday after taking a tablet of Norco believed to be tainted with fentanyl.

“Heartbreaking stories like Jerome Butler are becoming far too common,” said state Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, citing data showing 5,554 fentanyl-related U.S. deaths nationwide in 2014 alone. That was roughly 25 percent of all opiate overdoses that year.

With a 7-0 vote, the Senate Committee on Public Safety approved the bill, which would add anywhere from three to 25 years to prison sentences based on the weight of the drug involved. That’s the equivalent punishment for those convicted as major sellers and distributors of heroin and cocaine.

Bates and other speakers emphasized that the bill does not target low-level dealers or users.

“We are targeting major narcotics dealers … who are in it for the money and don’t care how many lives are lost,” said Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Stu Greenberg, whose office sought the bill after four people in that county died last year of fentanyl-related overdoses. “I do believe it’s a deterrent.”

Asked why dealers would continue selling a drug that kills their own customers, Greenberg said, “It’s all about money. The number of people they’re killing is low compared to the number of people they’re creating as customers.” Those who die, he said, are considered “collateral damage.”

Fentanyl is a low-cost, highly profitable drug for dealers and offers an intense high that’s increasingly sought after by addicts willing to “roll the dice,” he added.

Typically used in hospitals during surgery or for chronic pain relief, fentanyl is considered up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. In recent years, it’s contributed to a rash of overdoses and deaths in cities and states across the country, but has only recently appeared in California.

The bill was opposed by the California Public Defenders Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU’s Sacramento office, said that while fentanyl is a public health crisis, increasing the penalties will not deter illicit drug sales or use and will further divert money away from treatment and rehabilitation for addicts.

While the bill is “well-intentioned, it’s not the solution,” she said.

The bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee in late April or May.

Natasha Butler, mother of 28-year-old Jerome Butler who died of opioid overdose Wednesday, speaks at a vigil in south Sacramento.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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