Assembly Public Safety Committee Holds the Line on Increasing Fentanyl Criminalization in California, Commits to Comprehensive Public Health Approach

Press Release April 27, 2023
Media Contact

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
[email protected]

Sacramento, CA – Today, the Assembly Public Safety Committee held a special hearing to consider a series of bills seeking to increase penalties for fentanyl-related offenses, including AB 367 (Mainschein), AB 955 (Petrie-Norris), AB 675 (Soria), AB 1058 (Patterson), AB 474 (Rodriguez) and AB 33 (Bains).  The committee also considered AB 701 by Assembly Member Villapadua which was on the agenda for a vote only. 
We applaud the members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee for holding the line on the two most dangerous bills – AB 367 (Mainschein) and AB 1058 (Patterson). While some bills – AB 474 (Rodriguez), AB 675 (Soria), and AB 701 (Villapadua) – made it out of the committee, legislators demonstrated their commitment to embracing public health approaches and a willingness to work together with public health professionals, treatment experts, harm reduction experts, individuals with lived experience and public safety experts as the legislative process moves forward.  
California must invest resources into proven strategies that work over criminalization and stigmatization. These strategies include making treatment more accessible – such as treatment on demand, investing resources into harm reduction, implementing overdose prevention services, and providing comprehensive reality-based drug education grounded in science for parents, youth and educators.  
“While we acknowledge all the lives that have been lost to the overdose crisis in California is painful for parents, siblings, co-workers, families and friends, criminalization does not work. And it does nothing to solve the overdose crisis. We already have laws on the books that provide harsh sentences for drugs, yet have only made things worse. Criminalization has led to increased overdoses among Black, Latine and indigenous populations and a more unknown and potent drug supply. We are a diverse state with a high number of vulnerable populations that deserve real solutions. We call upon our state leadership to support and fund the public health approaches that are proven to work,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

“I applaud the committee members that rejected the bills imposing longer sentences that we know disproportionately impact minority communities. Spending more on keeping people in prison longer is detrimental to both the individual and their communities. Instead, we need bills to improve treatment of substance use disorders outside the criminal justice system and ensure easy access to care in communities. Too many people can’t access evidence-based voluntary treatment and other health services. It is inhumane. Without the availability of these services, people are exposed to high levels of risk for both infectious diseases and overdose,” said Dr. David Goodman-Meza, Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“The chair and committee members did the right thing by rejecting harmful legislation. Based on my own experience, I know that punitive drug laws do not decrease drug use, drug sales, or overdose deaths. They just cause more harm and result in more lives lost,” said Aimee Dunkle, Executive Director Solace Foundation and serves on the Broken No More board of directors.
“We thank the committee for their bold action today. Continuing the criminalization of drugs like fentanyl will cause a greater harm to our communities already impacted, by forcing people underground and away from lifesaving services. Punitive, coercive and measures using the so-called war on drugs have never been effective or support people’s wellbeing and recovery. The state now more than ever should fund the 63 evidence-based harm reduction programs in California under our California Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction Initiative. Until then, we will continue to witness a mounting number of overdose deaths in California when evidence-based solutions like syringe service programs and overdose prevention programs could save lives,” said Jessenia Garcia, Capacity Building & Community Mobilization Manager at the National Harm Reduction Coalition.
“We’d like to thank the Assembly Public Safety Committee and advocates for signaling that, rather than counterproductive interdiction and incarceration, evidence-based public health interventions are the solution to the overdose crisis. This includes readily available drug adulterant testing, broad access to overdose reversal medication, harm reduction practices such as safer supply and supervised consumption, and a full continuum of low-threshold, voluntary treatment options,” said Dr. Vitka Eisen, CEO, HealthRIGHT 360.
“The reason we are in this desperate overdose situation, with an ever-increasing unpredictable drug supply, is because the War on Drugs does not end drug use or drug sales. If we think the overdose epidemic is bad now, consider the apocalyptic consequences of making people even more afraid to call 911 during an overdose. We’re glad that the committee stood against the bad fentanyl bills. California must prioritize lives by investing in evidence-based public health interventions,” said Soma Snakeoil, Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Sidewalk Project.
“Draconian laws to punish individuals who use drugs and small-time dealers are just a continuation of the long-failed war on drugs. Black and brown-bodied folks suffer the most while no real change is affected. The bills that were heard would not have helped anyone and instead hurt the most marginalized of our society and the chair and committee members understood this. The decision of the Assembly Public Safety Committee to reject all the harmful bills sends a clear signal that carceral efforts are not the answer. What is needed is the continued funding of harm reduction in the state. Harm reduction saves lives. Through the Overdose Prevention Harm Reduction initiative and distribution of naloxone, syringe service programs have saved a reported 38,753 lives in the last year alone. We need to focus on strategies that have been proven successful rather than rehash outdated punitive laws that we have seen fail people again and again,” said Spider Davila, Program Manager with Community Health Project Los Angeles (CHPLA).
“Treatment providers have fought for decades for improved access to addiction treatment. When we have 30 of 31 counties that provide addiction safety net services to people with addiction not meeting network adequacy, it is premature for the legislature to throw its hands up and claim ‘Treatment doesn’t work, let’s arrest our way out of this.’ We need resources, not more jail cells,” said Pete Nielsen, President and CEO California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals.
“We don’t need more task forces. We don’t need more penalties. We already have both, and they have landed us in one of the deadliest public health crises in American history. We need to provide people in the throes of addiction with safe, controlled supply and put our resources into next-generation treatments,” said Lt. Diane Goldstein (Ret.), the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. 
“CA is still recovering from the devastating and ineffective impacts of the War on Drugs – it failed. We cannot afford to go down that path again. We cannot invest in proven failures and expect better outcomes. Instead, we must pursue evidence-based practices that follow the science, the research, and people’s lived experiences in order to solve the addiction crisis in this state,” said Antoinette Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Initiate Justice. 

“We’ve been down this road 1000 times. With the Boggs Act of 1952, the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971, Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, and the subsequent piling on of state and local regulations that have increased criminal offenses for drug use, possession, and sales – each time, mandating stricter penalties for the most dangerous drugs of the time. And yet, in the wake of all of these bills, overdose rates have skyrocketed, the overall disease burden from drugs has quadrupled, and drug use rates have remained exactly the same. While the committee rejected most of the harmful bills, continuing to place the overdose crisis under the umbrella of the criminal legal system will only make things worse. In order to get a handle on the fallout from fentanyl’s commodity chain, we must invest in public health innovations such as safe supply, comprehensive community-based drug checking programs, and overdose prevention centers. It’s time to shift our focus away from criminal justice and instead invest in the unsung hero of this opioid crisis – harm reduction,” said Darren Willett, Director of the Center for Harm Reduction Homeless Health Care Los Angeles.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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