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California Dems Go Easy on Fentanyl Dealers as Overdose Deaths Spike

A billboard in San Francisco / Getty Images

As San Francisco grapples with a spike in overdose deaths, California Democrats are waffling on efforts to crack down on drug dealers.

San Francisco’s medical examiner on Tuesday reported that 200 people died of drug overdoses in the first quarter of 2023, at least a 40 percent increase over the past year. The majority of those overdoses were caused by fentanyl, the synthetic drug that has plagued the city in recent years. Even prior to the recent jump, San Francisco had one of the highest overdose rates in the country.

The city’s overdose crisis does not seem to have motivated California Democrats, who as of this week have killed about a dozen bills to hold fentanyl dealers more accountable. Their reluctance to punish lethal drug dealers comes after a years-long progressive push to roll back criminal penalties for drug-related crimes. Chief among the soft-on-crime groups lobbying in Sacramento is the Drug Policy Alliance, which was founded by the liberal billionaire George Soros and remains a leading critic of fentanyl crackdowns.

In response to San Francisco’s overdose update, Democratic leaders in the State Assembly announced they would grant hearings for five bills aimed at curbing the fentanyl trade. Each of the bills had been blocked by the Assembly’s progressive-dominated public safety committee, whose chairman, Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D.), this week dismissed plans to raise penalties for fentanyl dealers as failing “to address key components of the problem.”

This announcement followed a Tuesday press conference by Assembly Republicans, who, flanked by families of fentanyl victims, warned they would bypass the committee altogether and try to bring legislation directly to the Assembly floor. Most of the five bills that will get another chance are authored by Democrats.

But even Democrat-backed bills have foundered in the Legislature, which can’t even seem to agree on proposals that would give fentanyl dealers the same treatment the state gives drunk drivers. Under these proposals, fentanyl dealers on their first arrest would be formally notified that their actions could be deadly. If the dealer is arrested again in conjunction with an overdose death, he or she could be charged with voluntary manslaughter or murder.

State senator Tom Umberg, the Democratic author of one of the bills, has not been able to get his bill through the chamber. Next week, he will have one last opportunity to introduce the bill before the Legislature finalizes the slate of bills it will consider this session. Umberg faces an uphill battle. The Republican author of the State Assembly’s version of the same proposal said he’s dropping the bill because it has been killed too many times.

One of the lawmakers who blocked Umberg’s bill is Democratic state senator Scott Wiener, who on Wednesday bemoaned the city’s latest fentanyl overdose report. Wiener, who represents San Francisco, is a major force behind California’s soft drug policies. Wiener frequently pitches bills to relax penalties for drug dealing and possession and has carried measures in the Legislature at the behest of the Drug Policy Alliance. Wiener late last month helped block Umberg’s bill over pleading objections from San Francisco’s district attorney.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.) has been similarly reticent to crack down on fentanyl dealers. The governor last month unveiled a “master plan” to fight fentanyl abuse by spending millions of dollars on drug test strips, treatment programs, and overdose medication for communities and middle and high schools. While Newsom has pledged to hold “Big Pharma accountable” for opioids, he has not made a similar proclamation about drug dealers.

Newsom on Wednesday made an unannounced visit to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the epicenter of the city’s drug trade. Newsom was joined by members of his cabinet, including Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.), whose wife voted against the Assembly proposal to crack down on dealers. When a resident approached Newsom to ask how he planned to fix the city’s fentanyl problem, the governor declined to give a substantive answer.

“What do you want me to do?” Newsom asked in reply. “You tell me what we need to do.”



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