By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – In a blow to tough on crime advocates, SB 44, jointly authored by Democratic Senator Thomas Umberg and Republican Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh failed passage in the Senate Public Safety Committee.
SB 44, nicknamed Alexandra’s Law, proposed to implement a Fentanyl Admonishment in California similar to the state’s current Watson Advisement for DUIs.
“To say the least, I am really discouraged by today’s hearing,” said Senator Umberg. “We are facing untold devastation in terms of fentanyl and to know that parents, nurses, teachers, and law enforcement officials will have to endure this tragedy is, to me, unforgiveable.”
He added, “Complex problems like drug use and homelessness require complex solutions and immeasurable levels of diplomacy — conversations that must be had in the face of epidemics like this. Delay or denial of the exponential increase in the fentanyl devastation will only serve to kill thousands of Californians and devastate their families.”
Umberg’s office noted, “According to recent reports, approximately 107,477 people died from drug overdoses overall in the U.S. in the 12-month period ending in August 2022, making it the leading cause of injury-related deaths. California accounts for approximately 20% of that statistic.”
SB 44, co-authored by 41 legislators and over half of the State Senate, required that a written advisory or admonishment be issued to a person convicted of a fentanyl-related drug offense notifying the person of the danger of manufacturing and distributing controlled substances and of potential future criminal liability if another person dies as a result of that person’s actions.
Joint author, Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, stated, “I’m heartbroken at the committee’s decision to not pass SB 44 today. Each of our communities have been affected by the fentanyl epidemic. In the Inland Empire, between 80-90% of our opioid deaths are fentanyl-related. This is not just a crisis; it’s thousands of individual tragedies.”
However, progressives oppose the measure which they see as an extension of the failed war on drugs.
“Today’s hearing on SB 44 demonstrated the disastrous impact that drug war polices have had across California, these policies have contributed to the preventable death of family members, neighbors and friends,” said Norma Palacios, California Policy Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Palacios added, “We deeply sympathize with the families who attended the hearing and agree that the state needs to do something to prevent more people from dying. However, we strongly believe that SB 44 did not presented an effective tool to confront this public health crisis, but rather relied on an outdated policy focused on incarceration and criminalization.”
However, the DPA believes that “Instead of saving lives, SB 44 would have intensified stigma and made people fearful of calling for help in the event of an overdose, further pushing people away from needed services.”
Palacios said, “It’s critical for policymakers to look beyond the criminal legal system to address this public health crisis. To curb down the overdose rate, any policy must be backed by science and prioritize the well-being of individuals by ensuring easy access to harm reduction resources and social services like permanent housing and employment, as well as low-barrier to voluntary treatment.”
Last week the San Francisco Public Defender’s office authored a letter in opposition to SB 44.
Melanie Kim, State Policy Director for the SF Public Defender’s Office noted, “This bill would facilitate the unjust practice of convicting a person for murder or manslaughter who sold, furnished, shared, or manufactured a controlled substance in the instance of an accidental overdose resulting in death.”
While acknowledging the “tragic increase in drug overdose deaths,” Kim argued, “These tragedies are best honored by implementing evidence based solutions that help individuals, families, and communities heal and that prevent additional avoidable deaths. California needs to invest more in substance use disorder treatment and harm reduction, rather than pursuing expensive and unproductive incarceration policies.”
They believe, “It would be healthier, safer and better for public safety to send an additional 17 people to methadone treatment, or 19 people to buprenorphine treatment, than to incarcerate one person for even a year, much less 10, 15 or 20 years.”
Said Kim, “The war on drugs failed us, failed families, and failed communities. After incarcerating millions of Americans, drugs became more widely available, stronger, and cheaper. It seems completely irrational to replicate that failed policy.”
The San Francisco DA and Pulblic Defender’s are on the opposite side of the issues on this one.
The bill was also strongly supported by San Francisco DA Brooke Jenkins who has attempted to make drug enforcements efforts a centerpiece of her administration.
The DA believes that by passing Alexandra’s Law, the Legislature would provide an additional tool for prosecutors to hold fentanyl traffickers who reoffend accountable.
She stated, “California and our entire country is suffering from the level of death and misery fentanyl is causing on our streets and in our communities.”
The DA added, “We must advance bold and creative solutions that will save lives and keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. Alexandra’s Law is a necessary deterrent that will warn people and dealers about the dangers of trafficking fentanyl while helping to ensure that repeat offenders are held accountable.”
While the bill is down, it might not be altogether out. It was granted Reconsideration for a later hearing.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said, “Fentanyl is ravaging California’s cities, leading to a skyrocketing number of overdose deaths and supercharging our homelessness crisis.”
He added, “This shouldn’t be controversial.”
But opponents see this as ignoring best practices and presents a barrier to voluntary treatment.