By Robert J Hansen
Woodland, CA – A federal grand jury indicted Gilbert Ramirez, 25, and Michael Valentino Lovato, 33, both of Sacramento, on several charges related to possession and distribution of fentanyl and methamphetamine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced earlier this month.
Between April and July 2022, Ramirez and Lovato allegedly worked with each other and others to distribute over 500 grams of methamphetamine and over 400 grams of fentanyl in Sacramento County.
The case is the result of an investigation involving the Sacramento Police Department and the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, according to the attorney’s office.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threatening our country. We must come together to educate our communities to save lives,” said Jeff Reisig, Yolo County District Attorney.
The defendants face a maximum statutory penalty of life in prison and a $10 million fine.
Yolo County began charging defendants in June 2021 with homicide if they provide drugs to a person who dies of a Fentanyl overdose.
“If a person dies as a result of ingesting fentanyl-laced product, you can be charged with manslaughter or murder,” Reisig said.
Under the new policy, in taking any plea for the manufacture, possession for sale, sales or transportation of controlled substances, the prosecutor shall ensure the accused person is specifically advised that illegally selling or furnishing fentanyl-laced drugs carries with it the specific risk that you are providing drugs with a potentially lethal substance, according to the DA’s office.
“The analogy I would give you is currently in California law, there’s a long precedent for the idea that if somebody’s convicted of driving under the influence, during that first conviction, they’re given a warning about the dangers of drunk driving,” Reisig says. “And they’re told specifically if you drive drunk again and you kill somebody, you could be charged with murder.”
A West Sacramento man was arrested last month in Elk Grove on suspicion of second-degree murder and distribution of a controlled substance but the Yolo DA has yet to charge someone with murder in connection to the sale of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is commonly prescribed by doctors as pain relief for patients and in anesthesia but has become the leading cause of death for adults aged 18-49 in the United States, according to a Washington Post analysis of Centers for Disease Control data.
“It is a great pain medicine,” says Daniel Colby, a specialist in emergency medicine, medical toxicology and addiction medicine for UC Davis Health. “If you break your femur, you probably want fentanyl or another opioid like that, at least short-term to get you through the pain. It hits opioid receptors in your body and relieves pain.”
Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency Director Nolan Sullivan said the emerging “Trojan Horse” nature of fentanyl is the cause of great concern.
“We’re finding a lot more folks that are not intentionally using fentanyl that are overdosing,” Sullivan said. “That’s the scary part.”
Sullivan said that is a battle that many public health agencies in Yolo have not had to fight yet, requiring them to be adaptable and quick thinking.
“It’s a public health issue and I think that we’re making it into a criminal issue,” Sullivan said.
Cristine DeBerry, Executive Director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, said in an Orange County Register Op-Ed that increasing penalties and imposing even more draconian sentences have never been shown to decrease crime.
“With drug overdoses continuing to plague our communities, we have a serious choice to make about what path we pursue. Do we double down on the failed war on drugs, or do we learn from our mistakes and champion evidence-based initiatives that will save lives? One of these strategies serves the interests of politicians, while the other serves the interests of the public,” DeBerry said.
She added that committing more resources to longer sentences for low-level dealers does not reduce the supply or demand for drugs.
One program offered by the Yolo DA is Addiction Intervention Court (AIC), a specialty program that serves up to 20 individuals at a time who have struggled with substance use disorders and are involved in the criminal justice system as a result of their addiction.
The program is a collaborative effort between the Yolo County Superior Court, Yolo County Public Defender, the District Attorney’s Office, the Probation Department, and the Health and Human Services Agency.
“Our office is committed to supporting this innovative collaborative, where certain non-violent drug-addicted offenders are given the opportunity to accept responsibility for their illegal conduct,” Reisig said.
In order to complete the program, people are required to remain arrest-free for a minimum of nine months, maintain a minimum of 180 continuous days of sobriety and establish an exit plan with the program’s clinician and probation officer, according to the DA
Participants also need to spend 4-6 weeks recounting their crime and the circumstances that led to the crime to complete the program.
According to Yolo County, 97 percent of street-purchased pills are counterfeit, 97 percent of those fake pills contain fentanyl and 52 people have died of fentanyl poisoning in the county since 2020.
“We recognize the devastating impact fentanyl and other opioids have on individuals, their families and the larger community,” said Sara Gavin, Chief Behavioral Health Officer for CommuniCare. “CommuniCare is committed to continuing to bring awareness, education and access to high-quality, de-stigmatized, accessible services to anyone who needs them.”
Yolo County is also encouraging residents to carry Narcan and act quickly when they suspect an overdose.
“We all need to work together to get messaging out to the local community that Narcan is available and partner on normalizing substance use treatment services as a part of overall health care,” said Ian Evans, Yolo County Alcohol and Drug Administrator.
Narcan, or naloxone, is a nasal spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Having safe, readily available life-saving resources like Narcan in the event of an opioid overdose is imperative, according to Gavin and Evans.
“Throughout history, public media campaigns have proven to be one of the most effective ways to decrease the negative effects of substances and increase prevention, harm reduction, and treatment engagement, raise awareness and decrease stigma,” Evans said. “As a community, we must begin rallying around individuals struggling with substance use the same we would with anyone struggling with a disease or illness, bringing connection and support in the same way we would to a friend, family member, or co-worker who was fighting cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.”