The Fentanyl Crisis in California is Growing Worse. In recent years, California has set aside more than $1 billion to address its opioid issue. The majority of the funds were utilised to provide homeless persons with medical attention as well as distribute naloxone, a medication that reverses overdoses, and fentanyl test strips. The state has a youth-focused opioid awareness programme and has requested the National Guard’s assistance in locating drug dealers.
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According to California Health Policy Strategies, a Sacramento consulting firm, drug overdoses now kill more people in California than homicides, car accidents, homicides, diabetes, and lung cancer combined. This is largely due to the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine. The majority of opioid overdose deaths, according to the state’s overdose surveillance dashboard, include fentanyl.
According to preliminary data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overdose deaths in California increased somewhat from the previous year to close to 20,000. Again, the number of overdose deaths in the US exceeded 100,000.
“As a mom, it absolutely terrifies me. In announcing more funds for California to create its own naloxone on May 12, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “As a governor, I see it and I recognise the gravity of what’s happening on the streets.
Public health policy experts claim there are no simple or obvious solutions, despite everything the state is attempting to decrease drug overdose deaths. Drug policy experts applaud California’s initiative to make naloxone as widely accessible as fire extinguishers in schools, bars, libraries, and convenience stores, but they also advise diverting more offenders from prisons and jails into treatment and promoting increasing the use of anti-addiction medications.
“Even if we do a lot of things right in policy, we’re going to have a fair amount of deaths in the coming years,” said Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University and an authority on drug policy.
If policymakers want to effect long-lasting change, he claimed, they must look into the intricate, underlying reasons of addiction. A bill to establish a Fentanyl Addiction and Overdose Prevention Task Force is now being advanced by lawmakers, who have also established a Select Committee on Fentanyl, Opioid Addiction, and Overdose Prevention. The task force would have to start meeting the next year, provide an interim report by January 2025, and recommendations by July 2025 under the terms of the measure.
In order to effectively address addiction, Humphreys stated, “it really is something, like COVID, that we have to focus on and make some permanent structural changes, like to health care, mental health care, and funding.”
We still have a lot of work to do, Newsom admitted, adding.
In requesting that the California National Guard, California Highway Patrol, and state Department of Justice crack down on fentanyl dealing in San Francisco, where fatal overdoses increased by more than 40% in the first three months of this year compared to 2022, the Democratic governor was joined by Attorney General Rob Bonta last month.
In a joint statement, 28 organisations, including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, criticised the action as “a law enforcement-first approach to matters of public health.”
State lawmakers have recently discussed whether and how to toughen penalties for dealers while the governor has concentrated on fentanyl trafficking and increasing access to naloxone.
A few of the suggestions have already come to a standstill, including one that would have jailed drug dealers for up to nine years for selling fentanyl on social media and another that would have warned them they might be charged with murder if someone died after taking their narcotics. Two legislation that would have increased penalties for anybody caught carrying a gun and dealing big amounts of fentanyl were kept alive by lawmakers.
Because they are in control of the public safety committees in the legislature, Democrats are hesitant to endorse harsher punishments for fear of starting a new drug war or enacting harsher sanctions than those applied to crack cocaine, which unfairly criminalised Black people.
According to Konrad Franco, who conducted the study for California Health Policy Strategies, the number of overdose deaths among Black and Latino Californians increased by more than 200% between 2017 and 2021. Black people make approximately 6% of California’s population, but in 2021, they were responsible for 13% of the state’s overdose deaths.
During a special hearing on fentanyl-related laws last month, San Leandro Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Democrat, said, “We cannot go backwards and fill our prisons with kids of colour.”
Increased punishments for those who are mostly under the control of their addictions have been questioned by Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Though he acknowledged that incarceration might be necessary to safeguard the public, particularly from violent offenders who reject treatment and hurt others, Benjamin said that policymakers should instead support drug courts that prioritise treatment programmes over incarceration.
Humphreys cited the 24/7 Sobriety and Honest Opportunity Probation With Enforcement programmes as examples. They combine routine drug and alcohol testing of offenders with brief sanctions for infractions.
Humphreys described the strategy as “using the criminal justice system in a way that, over time, actually reduces incarceration rather than increasing it.”
Tanya Tilghman, a Black woman from San Francisco, believes that fentanyl distributors should face harsher sanctions because the problem transcends racial boundaries. After her son developed a methamphetamine and more recently a fentanyl addiction, she became an activist with Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths.
Drug use, according to her, “does not recognise colour or racial boundaries.” “It’s killing more people, and it’s killing a lot of Black people.”
Although enforcement measures are supported by the general public, according to Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California-San Francisco, they “simply don’t work as well as we want them to.” Any crackdown should, at the very least, be combined with a similar public health strategy, he said.
“We’ve thrown tens of billions of dollars at the war on drugs over the course of two generations, almost three generations now, and believe it or not, drugs across category — from marijuana to cocaine to heroin/fentanyl — drugs are ever more pure and ever cheaper despite impressive levels of effort,” Ciccarone said. “The most honest response is that it’s unclear what should be done to address the fentanyl crisis.”
He advocated for California to provide supervised consumption locations where opioid users may legally inject drugs; Newsom vetoed this proposal in the autumn, but Ciccarone claimed it could help ease patients into treatment. He added that further harm reduction measures, such as increasing the use of test strips and other chemical tests to screen medications for fentanyl contamination, can also help save lives.
The opioid issue was studied by a 17-member panel headed by Humphreys, and among its recommendations was to increase the accessibility of prescription medications like buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone to reduce users’ cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
However, some parents of kids who have struggled with opioid addiction contend that stiffer punishments must be implemented as part of the solution.
Jaime Puerta, whose only son, Daniel, died from fentanyl in 2020 at the age of 16, claimed that “what they don’t realise is that fentanyl has changed the drug landscape like no other drug has in the history of the United States of America.”
California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation, is published by KFF Health News, which also produced this item.