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California Fentanyl Debate: More Prison Time Or Harm Reduction?

Pamela Smith of Fresno, Cal., whose son died of an oxycodone pill laced with fentanyl, is advocating for some of the more than 30 bills pending in the California legislature to address the drug. Some of those measures have been stalled in a philosophical dispute between lawmakers about the best way to address a crisis that is killing 110 people in the state each week. About half of the proposals focus on public safety, such as punishing drug dealers with longer prison sentences, while the others aim to increase accessibility to fentanyl overdose treatments, and to create education and prevention programs, reports the Associated Press. Bills focusing on public safety measures were at risk of getting lost until Smith and dozens of other protesters converged on the state Capitol last week demanding they be heard. Six bills, including four that would increase fentanyl penalties, will get a public hearing on Thursday.

“(Drug dealers) need to know that if they are caught with this poison, they are going to spend a great deal of time in our jails and prisons because that’s where they belong,” Smith said. Tougher prison sentences for fentanyl dealers has been the common strategy for lawmakers across the U.S., including those in Democratic-controlled legislatures such as California, Oregon and Nevada. The tactic has drawn fierce opposition from harm reduction advocates, who say criminalizing the drug issue has backfired and worsened the crisis.

In California, it has divided the Democratic caucus that controls a majority of votes. Republicans and moderate Democrats are pushing for stronger prison sentences dealers, while others are wary to advance policies that would lengthen criminal sentences and incarcerate more people. “It’s good for politics and publicity, but it really doesn’t get to the root of the problem of drug addiction,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat and chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, who called bills that increase prison sentences “a Republican playbook.” The overdose crisis is deadlier than any the U.S. has ever seen. It’s one reason California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed more than $90 million in new spending to combat fentanyl.


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