REGION — Efforts to curb abuse and increase penalties for possession and sale of fentanyl suffered a major setback last week in the California state legislature.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee blocked a bill (SB 1323) authored by State Sens. Patricia Bates (R – Laguna Niguel) and Bob Huff (R – San Dimas) to combat the opiate drug fentanyl.
On Aug. 2, the San Diego County board of supervisors unanimously passed a recommendation to support the legislation. In addition, Supervisor Dave Roberts said the bill also carried the support of San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
The drug was created as a painkiller and anesthetic for surgery, but has recently become an alternative and cutting agent for other narcotics such as heroin and oxycodone.
Bates slammed the committee for killing the bill and Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to decrease the prison population.
“It’s disappointing that the Assembly Appropriations Committee did not forward the bill to the entire Assembly for a vote,” she said. “Unfortunately, the governor’s focus on decreasing the state’s prison population has made it difficult to pass any legislation that would address weaknesses in current criminal law. Given fentanyl’s deadly potency, the law should treat fentanyl trafficking the same as heroin and cocaine. Today’s decision is a sad setback for law enforcement efforts to go after big-time fentanyl dealers.”
Supervisor Dave Roberts, meanwhile, was also disappointed in the outcome. Roberts is a delegate for the San Diego Prescription Drug Task Force.
“After clearing all relevant policy committees, it is unfortunate that SB 1323 did not survive the Assembly’s appropriations hearing last week,” he said in a statement. “While the merits of Sen. Bates’ bill are clear, so is the fiscal impact of any legislation that calls for sentencing enhancements in a state that continues to grapple with prison overcrowding. I look forward to working with Sen. Bates over the next legislative session to find solutions to address this serious issue facing our state and nation.”
Opiate addiction has exploded across the country and in 2013 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) noted the fentanyl crisis.
The drug is at least 30 times more powerful than heroin and comes in several forms.
According to DEA Special Agent Amy Roderick of the San Diego Office, the chemicals are shipped from China to Mexico and Canada to be manufactured. From there, it is smuggled into the United States.
The DEA reported that more than 700 deaths have been attributed to fentanyl between 2013-14. In March and April, 52 overdoses and 10 deaths in Sacramento were attributed to counterfeit Norco pills containing fentanyl.
Complicating matters, the counterfeit pills look very similar to pills from a pharmaceutical company, Roderick said.
“It’s a very big concern for us because of how dangerous it is,” she added. “When you are addicted to an opiate … you are going to seek out an opiate. That’s where it scares us as well, kids out on the street thinking this is just a pill. It might not be just a pill.”
In San Diego County, Roderick noted an uptick in fentanyl trafficking. However, the substance is difficult to identify adding a lethal component to agents in the field.
On the DEA website, two New Jersey detectives said they nearly died after closing a bag of fentanyl powder. They didn’t know it was the drug and just a cloud of the drug nearly killed them.
Adding to the dangers, Roderick said just a few particles of the drug landing on skin could be lethal.
She said agents typically field test narcotics but due to the rise of fentanyl products, if agents are not sure of the substance they immediately take it to a lab for testing.
In the lab, she said technicians are more heavily protected than when they are dealing with methamphetamine.
“Here’s the really scary thing for officers and dogs,” Roderick said. “What we are telling officers is, if they have reason to believe it is fentanyl they should not be (field) testing it at all. Go right to the lab. It’s serious stuff.”
“It just makes their (law enforcement) job so much more difficult,” Roberts added.
Adding to issue, is the power of the drug. A small amount can be applied to lower quality heroin, increasing the potency and profits for dealers.
Roderick said 1 kilogram of fentanyl is manufactured into hundreds of thousands of pills. For example, if a batch has 1.5 milligrams of fentanyl per pill, about 666,666 pills can be manufactured from 1 kilogram.
A 30-milligram oxycodone pill runs about $30 on the street. If the same math were applied to the fentanyl example, total sales would reach nearly $20 million.
The money, Roderick, said is “basic drug dealing 101,” meaning if there is a subpar harvest season for the poppy plant, which is the base of heroin, fentanyl is added yet marketed as heroin.
“If some of that supposed heroin contains fentanyl and you shoot up with it, you are going to die,” she added. “It’s coming across mixed with other drugs. They might take a lower grade heroin, something like 13-30 percent pure, they add a couple grains of fentanyl and now it’s up to, what an addict would say, is some of the best heroin.”
The DEA secured a conviction in January when Hugo Adalberto Adrian Ramirez, the patriarch of a family drug trafficking ring, plead guilty to distribute numerous narcotics. including fentanyl. Law enforcement seized 1 kilogram of the drug in May 2014, which was to be distributed in New Jersey.
Ramirez was one of 12 individuals who plead guilty in the case.
In April, the DEA announced the arrest of Mendoza Bohon and the seizure of hundreds of counterfeit oxycodone pills, which actually contained fentanyl, at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry on Feb. 10. The DEA said it is believed it was the first such arrest along the California-Mexico border consisting of fentanyl.
“I wanted to make sure that we expand sentences so people know how serious this is,” Roberts said. “It is manufactured clandestinely across the border and also in China. We are seeing across the state encounters in pills … nationwide we are seeing higher fentanyl availability.”
The San Diego County Prescription Drug Task Force tracks abuse using nine indicators. According to the agency, 1,268 prescription-related deaths have been tallied between 2011-15.
Many addicts start with oxycodone, but transition to heroin or fentanyl because those two are much cheaper, Roderick added.
As for Roberts, the supervisor said his participation as a delegate is where he first learned of the dangers of the drug both to users and law enforcement.
“When I had talked to our legislative department at the county, it was part of the county’s legislative package,” he said. “I submitted a legislative proposal saying ‘could we add this to throw the county’s weight behind this legislation?’”
Currently, the drug is classified as a Schedule II narcotic and the possession for sale or purchase for sale can result in a two- to four-year prison sentence.
The new bill, however, would have increased prison sentences dramatically. Based on weight, a person convicted of possessing or selling the drug could serve between three and 25 years in prison. Conspiracy enhancements would add up to three to 15 years in prison.
Fines, meanwhile, would reach a maximum between $1 million and $8 million, depending on the charge.
According to the SD County Medical Examiner’s Office, 28 fentanyl-related deaths were attributed to the drug in 2015 compared to 16 in 2014. As of Aug. 11, 13 confirmed fentanyl deaths were reported by the agency.
“I think a lot of times people are dealing in the substance and not knowing what it is,” Roberts said.