A Senate committee in California unanimously approves the first step to stiffen penalties for major drug traffickers selling the potentially fatal painkiller fentanyl, which now has been linked to at least 10 deaths.

Sen. Patricia Bates (R- Laguna Niguel) dubbed fentanyl as the “emerging go-to drug for cartels.” She also highlighted SB 1323 as the way to curtail major drug trafficking organizations importing the drug and its synthetic versions from Mexico and even Canada.

In Sacramento alone, 10 fentanyl-related deaths and 42 overdoses have been recorded. Jerome Butler of south Sacramento, a father of three, died on March 30 after he took a Norco tablet believed to contain fentanyl.

“We are targeting major narcotics dealers… I do believe it’s a deterrent,” says Capt. Stu Greenberg, Orange County sheriff. His office sought the creation of the bill after four from his county died in 2015 from fentanyl-related overdose.

The committee voted 7-0 in approval of the bill, which will add between three and 25 years of imprisonment based on the involved drug weight – the same level of punishment for convicted major heroin and cocaine distributors and sellers.

A low-cost drug and source of great profits for dealers, fentanyl brings about an intense high that addicts increasingly seek out. Usually used during surgeries or for relief of chronic pain, it is deemed about 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Typically prescribed to cancer patients since the 1960s, it is available in the forms of patch, lozenge, or injection, with an illegally manufactured version called “China White” making its rounds in the country.

While fentanyl caused about a quarter of all opiate overdoses in 2014 alone, it has only recently appeared in the state of California, possibly through Mexican drug cartels, according to authorities.

The first patients of fentanyl overdose were wheeled into the emergency room March 23, and since then 42 are believed to have overdosed – 10 of them ended in their graves. Nine deaths were in Sacramento County while one was in the neighboring Yolo County, according to federal authorities.

The Sacramento-area victims ranged from ages 18 to 59 and were equal numbers of men and women, according to a safety alert from the Drug Enforcement Administration issued on April 1.

Greenberg explains that those who died are “collateral damage”: there is far more money in the number of created customers than the number of people killed.

Parties like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California, however, opposed the bill that will be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee this late April or May, believing that stiffer penalties won’t deter illegal drug sales and will take funding away from drug treatment and rehabilitation.

“[I]t’s not the solution,” says Natasha Minsker of the ACLU, although calling the bill a “well-intentioned” measure.

Photo: Emon Halim | Flickr

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