Family members of people who died of fentanyl overdoses met at the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office recently to raise awareness of fentanyl poisoning and urge lawmakers to increase the penalty for dealing fentanyl to a murder felony.
Fentanyl poisoning deaths have exploded across the country in recent years, particularly in California. Since lawmakers first rejected a proposal for harsher penalties against the synthetic opioid dealers in 2020, California fentanyl overdose deaths rose by around 6,000.
According to statistics given by local district attorneys, Riverside fentanyl-related deaths rose over 800% since 2016, while overdoses in the OC rose by over 1,067% over those four years – from 37 to 432 deaths.
Sen. Melissa Melendez first attempted to pass a bill to address the problem in 2020. Senate Bill 350 would allow repeat drug dealers in California – particularly fentanyl dealers – to be charged with murder.
It was rejected for the second time around this year.
“From my perspective, I will tell you that it seems as though the Legislature is not serious about dealing with this epidemic of fentanyl,” Melendez said to the grieving families at a press conference. “We are not giving up. We are going to continue moving forward, but we certainly need the public’s help.”
Matt Capelouto, the father of overdose victim Alexandra Capelouto, urged California voters to support an initiative for SB 350 to get it on the ballot.
“Since SB 350 was rejected, California went from over 4,000 fentanyl deaths in 2020 to what is expected to be nearly 10,000 deaths by the time 2021 statistics are available,” Capelouto said. “This is a war not being fought with guns and bullets. We’re being poisoned from within.”
Riverside District Attorney Mike Hestrin spoke more about the alarming statistics.
“Those numbers are similar to what we’re seeing across the region. Our citizens are dying at an alarming rate because of fentanyl. All of us on the stage today have resolved, in one way or another, to fight back against this scourge,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies supported the move, with district attorneys in Riverside, San Bernadino, and Orange County vocally supporting the bill or stepping up efforts to prosecute drug offenders on murder charges.
So far, the Riverside District Attorney’s Office has charged eleven people with murder in 10 cases.
In addition, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson followed suit and successfully charged a man with murder after a fentanyl overdose in Chino Hills last year. Following the case, the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Office created a fentanyl task force to investigate overdose cases.
In Orange County, District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his office is implementing murder charges for first-time convicted drug dealers.
“If you peddle fentanyl, and you kill somebody in my county, we will absolutely consider charging you with murder. Enough is enough!” Spitzer said.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said that the county confirmed 400 fentanyl deaths in 2021 so far, but expects that number to be more than twice that when the toxicology results are completed.
Bianco has responded to the epidemic by equipping his deputies with naloxone, or Narcan, an OTC nasal spray that can be used to treat unconscious people who have overdosed on drugs.
“I can’t even venture to guess how many lives we’ve saved in the last year because we do this on a daily basis,” Bianco said. “Multiple times a day we are responding to cases where someone is unconscious or under the influence of fentanyl, typically being poisoned because they thought they were getting something else.”
Assemblyman James Ramos, co-author of Melendez’s SB 350 bill, is also pushing for separate bills like AB 1627 and 1628, which aim to provide naxolone and overdose training to parents through the department of behavioral health and the sheriff’s department, while also cracking down on social media platforms like Snapchat to prohibit the sale of drugs online.
The bills also aim to create specialized response teams at sheriff’s departments to investigate overdoses and collect evidence for potential crimes.