By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – A presentation that was characterized by sources as “highly deceptive” was pulled from the Board of Supervisor Agenda this week. In part, it pushed for a controversial policy of charging with murder those who deal drugs when someone dies as the result of an overdose.
The presentation by DA Jeff Reisig as well as HHSA Director Karen Larsen remained on the BOS website, however.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine, however about 50 to 100 times more potent. Fentanyl is much cheaper than other drugs and thus the use has been rising and with it the risk of overdose, in particular because people often think they are buying heroin or oxycodone, but instead bought fentanyl.
“Due to high toxicity and low quality controls, one pill can kill,” the DA warns. “Opioids, including fentanyl, accounted for 73% of the overdose deaths nationally in 2019 (per the CDC).”
The CDC also noted that about three-quarters of those deaths involved synthetic opioids.
In a report earlier this month, the DEA told one publication that back in 2017, 10 percent of counterfeit pills seized by the DEA contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, and last year that number jumped to 40 percent.
The DA warns it is difficult to spot a fake pill—especially for an unsuspecting person. Moreover, as little as two milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal.
But is fentanyl a problem in Yolo County? They argue that fentanyl deaths are rapidly increasing.
In 2020, 32 people died of drug overdoses in Yolo County, and eight of those died from fentanyl.
By the end of July 2021, 12 people overall had died of an overdose in Yolo County, but of those, seven percent died from fentanyl.
“Though overdoses appear to be trending down, fentanyl overdoses are on the rise,” the DA says.
In June, the DA put out a press release: “The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office will now require, with any plea agreement involving narcotics trafficking, that the prosecutor formally advise defendants that they could face homicide charges if they later provide drugs to a person who dies of a Fentanyl overdose.
“These tragedies are now so widespread that drug dealers can no longer deny responsibility for the risk of Fentanyl in their product,” District Attorney Jeff Reisig explained. “When people get a DUI,” Reisig continued, “we give a warning that DUIs can cause death, which becomes evidence if they later kill someone in a DUI. There must be similar accountability for those selling narcotics knowing their product could very well contain lethal Fentanyl.”
The DA added, “This policy is part of the balanced approach the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has taken with narcotics cases.”
However, while the DA is pushing their policy of murder for drug dealers policy, there was no counter-balance to this position in the presentation.
The Drug Policy Alliance for one strongly disputes the notion that an overdose death is murder and argues that such laws are counterproductive as well as inhumane.
“In the 1980s, at the height of the draconian war on drugs, the federal government and a host of states passed “drug-induced homicide” laws intended to punish people who sold drugs that led to accidental overdose deaths with sentences equivalent to those for manslaughter and murder,” DPA noted.
This has actually increased in the last decade.
“Although data are unavailable on the number of people being prosecuted under these laws, media mentions of drug-induced homicide prosecutions have increased substantially over the last six years. In 2011, there were 363 news articles about individuals being charged with or prosecuted for drug-induced homicide, increasing over 300% to 1,178 in 2016,” they report.
There are a lot of problems with these kinds of laws however. For one thing, it actually discourages people from calling 911 to save someone “if they fear being charged with murder or manslaughter.”
Further: “Enforcement of drug war policies has historically targeted black and Latino communities, and drug-induced homicide prosecutions appear to follow this pattern.”
DPA explains, “Unfortunately, the harms of a highly punitive response to drug use and sales expand far beyond the effects of the actual punishment. Indeed, criminalizing people who sell and use drugs, through means like drug-induced homicide charges, amplifies the risk of fatal overdoses and diseases by increasing stigma and marginalization and driving people away from needed medical care, treatment, and harm reduction services.”
Instead, they argue, “proven strategies are available to reduce the harms associated with drug misuse, treat dependence and addiction, improve immediate overdose responses, enhance public safety, and prevent fatalities.
“These strategies include expanding access to the life-saving medicine naloxone and training in how to administer it; enacting and implementing legal protections that encourage people to call for medical help for overdose victims; training people how to prevent, recognize, and respond to an overdose; increasing access to opioid agonist treatment such as methadone and buprenorphine, and to other effective, non-coercive drug treatments; authorizing drug checking and safe consumption sites; and improving research on promising drug treatments.”
They argue: “Each of these strategies has evidence to support its effectiveness. Drug-induced homicide laws have none.”
“They have not proven successful at either reducing overdose deaths or curtailing the use or sale of illegal drugs. And yet, ironically, prosecutors and legislators wield this punitive sword with impunity.”
Our sources indicate that this presentation may come back and some have suggested if it does, a more balanced presentation might be in order.