Senate Democrats Block Sen. Bates' Bill to Combat Opioid Trafficking

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Senate Public Safety Committee blocked Senate Bill 176 today by Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), which would have enhanced criminal penalties for illegal distributors of fentanyl and carfentanil. Both drugs have been linked to numerous deaths across the nation in recent years. The bill only received two “aye” votes – both from Republicans. No Democrats voted in support.

“I am disappointed that Democrats on the Senate Public Safety Committee did not approve a bill that was designed to go after the biggest traffickers, not users who need medical help,” said Bates, a former Los Angeles County social worker who has worked in communities affected by drug abuse. “To save lives from being ravaged by the proliferation of fatal opioids, it is critical that the Legislature target big time traffickers who provide much of the illegal supply. Existing penalties are simply not enough to deter traffickers who have caused much pain among those affected.”

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who supported SB 176, added, “Those that illicitly sell fentanyl and seek to profit off death and addiction must be held accountable. Meaningful sentencing for drug dealers must be part of any strategy to address our nation’s opioid epidemic. California law needs to be updated to reflect current drug trends and public safety threats.”

SB 176 would have added fentanyl and carfentanil to a category of dangerous drugs, such as heroin, that are subject to penalty enhancements based on the weight an individual possesses for sale or distribution. The amount of additional time in state prison would have depended on the weight, such as if the amount of fentanyl being trafficked exceeds one kilogram, the person shall receive an additional term of three years; four kilograms or more – five years; and 10 kilograms or more – 10 years.

Fentanyl is a commonly prescribed synthetic opioid used to treat people with severe chronic pain, when other pain medicines no longer work, and as an anesthetic in surgery. When abused, fentanyl affects the brain and nervous system by producing a euphoric high 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine or heroin. A fentanyl overdose can cause blood pressure to plummet, diminish breathing and induce deep sleep coma, which can lead to death. The drug is inexpensive to produce, making it a go-to heroin substitute for drug cartels.

Carfentanil is a controlled substance that can be legally used to immobilize large animals such as elephants and moose. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, carfentanil is the most potent commercial opioid in the world. It is 5,000 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Carfentanil is not approved for human consumption.

In California, the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program has reported multiple events since early 2014 concerning substances that appeared to be heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, or prescription medication, but the primary active substance was determined to be fentanyl. According to a review by the Orange County Crime Lab, from 2015 to 2016 there was a 90 percent increase in deaths involving fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in Orange County. In Sacramento, there were 50 overdose cases and 14 deaths in a one-week span.

Numerous public safety organizations supported SB 176, including the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, California State Sheriffs’ Association, California College and University Police Chiefs Association, and the California Narcotic Officers Association.

Bates was a joint author of Senate Bill 1323 last year that would have enhanced criminal penalties for illegal distributors of fentanyl. SB 1323 cleared the Senate, but was ultimately held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.