Beginning January 1, 2024, California enacted new laws to attempt to combat the prevalence of deaths from the opioid fentanyl. According to the California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard, 2022 saw over 6,000 overdose deaths due to fentanyl. Fentanyl, therefore, accounts for 92% of all opioid deaths in 2022–for comparison, fentanyl only accounted for 16% of opioid deaths in 2016.

California officials have addressed the prevalence of fentanyl usage and the resulting deaths as a “crisis,” and have therefore taken measures to curb its manufacture and distribution. Many of these measures are punitive, with harsher penalties for those found guilty of sale and manufacture, while other lawmakers are attempting restorative measures aimed at treatment and rehabilitation.

At Confianza Legal, we have over 20 years of experience working with people whose lives and liberties have become tangled in the machinery of the opioid crisis. Here’s what you need to know about fentanyl and the ways that lawmakers are looking to combat its chokehold within our communities.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid whose primary medicinal use is to treat the pain of cancer patients. According to the DEA, it is “80-100 times more powerful than morphine” and 50 times more potent than heroin. It is often manufactured in the shape pills made to mimic prescription pills.

Fentanyl is versatile in that it can be consumed in many different forms, including powder, liquid, patch, pill, nasal spray, and lozenges, sometimes called “lollipops.” It can be injected, ingested, and smoked. It is not available as a prescription, but it can be administered at a medical site for people to whom it is prescribed for pain relief.

It has many street names, including Goodfellas, China Girl, Friend, He-Man, Great Bear, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Dance Fever, and Tango & Cash.

Its effects include feelings of euphoria, relaxation, sedation, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, urinary retention, and pupillary constriction. In the cases of an overdose, symptoms can also include cold skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure.

Why Is Fentanyl Punished So Harshly? 

Because fentanyl is a white powder with a powerful opiate effect and is cheap to manufacture, it can be cut with drugs like heroin in order to create a more intoxicating product at a lower cost. Many people ingest fentanyl unknowingly, which can lead to overdose given the power of the drug. Because of this prevalence, fentanyl-related deaths have skyrocketed over the last few years such that it is now the leading cause of opioid-related deaths. There has been an increase in deaths across all ages from fentanyl, including among minors under 18, prompting lawmakers to take new measures to protect youth from the influences of contaminated drugs.

New California Laws Address Fentanyl Crisis – What Are They? Do They Work? 

Lawmakers are testing new measures to curb the manufacture and traffic of fentanyl. As of January 1, 2024, new laws have come into circulation meant to fight the circulation of fentanyl, which include increased penalties like prison time for people who are charged with peddling this drug (always charged as a felony). Assembly Bill No. 701 provides for additional years of imprisonment based on the weight of drugs discovered for sale. For substances in excess of one kilogram, the guilty party receives three additional years onto the prison sentence. These punitive measures continue based on scale until a substance exceeds 80 kilograms, which provides for an additional 25 years of prison time. These increased penalties also include higher fines, with fines of $8 million for possession in excess of 10 kilograms.

Some experts warn that these punitive measures are not effective in curbing the circulation of fentanyl as the threat of additional prison time does not discourage production. Moreover, it might be actively harmful as it might discourage parties from calling for help in the event of an overdose. On the lowest levels, additional prison time does not curb the circulation of drugs as low-level street dealers, possibly dealing to support their own drug habits, are replaceable in the cartel hierarchy.

This law is not the only one aimed at addressing fentanyl usage. Some California prosecutors are charging dealers linked with fentanyl overdoses with homicide. As of March 2024, Riverside County has charged 34 suppliers with murder for their involvement in the deaths of users. These measures are being adopted around California with the formation of a law enforcement task force for the purpose of investigating fentanyl dealings as homicides currently in progress. Prosecutors saw their first success with this measure when they successfully convicted a Temecula man of second-degree murder after he supplied a 26-year-old woman with a fentanyl-laced pill.

San Francisco is also in the process of implementing mandatory drug screenings, a bill known as Proposition F, for people looking to access welfare benefits with the belief that prohibition will encourage users to seek treatment in order to access benefits.

Critics of these measures cite the invasiveness of Proposition F and the dangers of creating punitive measures for people suffering from addiction. Additionally, prosecuting drug dealers for murder is difficult as it necessitates proving that the dealer knew the drug transaction would result in the death of their client. The high burden of proof requires a lot of time from prosecutors. Critics are skeptical that more aggressive charges would act as a deterrent to sellers.

Other measures to decrease fentanyl-related deaths include distribution of test strips that check drugs for the presence of fentanyl and which can be acquired from clinical centers, as well as a measure known as Melanie’s Law, which will provide for a comprehensive curriculum in fentanyl and its effects in California schools.

Reach Out To Confianza Legal, Trusted Drug Crime Lawyers

If you or someone you love is facing drug charges, whether it involves the possession, sale, manufacture, or traffic of these materials, we want to hear your side of the story. With California lawmakers seeking harsher penalties amid the tragedies wrought by the opioid crisis, it’s more important than ever that you have an experienced legal advocate on your side to protect you from degradation by a system that is sometimes more interested in punishing than rehabilitating. We can help guide you through the courtroom process and ensure that you are being dealt with fairly. Reach out to schedule a free consultation and learn how we can potentially have your charges reduced or dropped.