They were as young as 14, 16, 18. Seeking celebration, relief, escape. Many were inexperienced users who thought they were taking OxyContin, or ecstasy, or cocaine, but were fooled by an even more lethal drug — fentanyl.
With overdose deaths related to fentanyl surging, state Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel re-introduced a bill on Dec. 15 that would task California’s Attorney General with getting a firmer handle on the problem and crafting coherent solutions.
Modeled after an earlier legislative effort targeting methamphetamine, Senate Bill 75 would require the A.G.’s office to establish and chair a “Southern California Fentanyl Task Force” to enhance law enforcement agency coordination, recommend changes to the law and bring a state-wide caliber of expertise to the issue. It would cover the hard-hit counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego.
“This issue is so widespread that it needs state coordination and implementation over several levels of government to see the effectiveness and results that were attained by other AG task forces,” says a primer on the bill.
It’s a bipartisan effort crafted with Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes and co-authors Assemblymembers Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach and Marie Waldron, R-Escondido; and Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore.
“As a former social worker who once worked in communities ravaged by drugs, (I believe) California must do more to save people from fentanyl-related tragedies,” said Bates in a prepared statement. “A task force would help maximize existing resources and improve communication among various agencies.”
The new bill is the latest incarnation of an idea Bates introduced in March, which was sidelined as the Legislature pivoted to the pandemic. Lawmakers hope to accomplish a major overhaul of the troubled addiction treatment industry next year.
The pandemic has only pumped up overdose deaths. Consider:
-The U.S. Centers for Disease Control tracked 32,000 deaths from synthetic opioids last year — primarily fentanyl. It’s projecting deaths will leap more than 26% this year, to some 46,000.
-In California, the toll has been grim. There were 104 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2014; quadruple that in 2017 (431); and almost quadruple that in 2019 (1,513). Officials expect fentanyl-related deaths to spike to some 1,900 in the Golden State in 2020.
In Los Angeles County alone, deaths soared from 117 in 2017 to a projected 783 in 2020, Bates said. And it’s not because there’s an exponentially-growing number of hard-core drug addicts; it’s because fentanyl has made its way into recreational drugs bought by occasional, casual users, many parents say.
In 2013, only 3% of overdose deaths in Los Angeles County involved fentanyl. But by last year fentanyl was linked to 32.8% of the county’s overdose deaths, and in the first seven months of 2020 it was nearly 50%, said Nicole Nishida, spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Fentanyl continues to pose a substantial risk to our communities,” said Orange County Sheriff Barnes in a prepared statement.
“As a state we must enhance our efforts to reduce the prevalence of this opioid from our communities. The current trend of rising fentanyl-related deaths is unacceptable.”
The victims are not only the users: Cartels increasingly lure young people, often students, to smuggle drugs across the border with promises of money and electronics, officials said. First responders are at risk as well: After police pulled a car over on Dec. 15, in Orange, a man tore open a plastic bag and dumped fentanyl on the ground, spilling it on the shoes and pants of officers and suspects. A small amount of the drug can be lethal.
The Senate has not yet set a hearing date for the bill. Bates has also authored several bills seeking to add fentanyl to the lost of dangerous drugs that are subject to penalty enhancements. Those haven’t been successful, but she plans to keep trying.
Source: Orange County Register