California Imposes Harsher Punishment for Fentanyl Possession

“AB 701 allows us to finally take illegal fentanyl distribution as seriously as we take heroin and cocaine distribution,” the lawmaker told The Epoch Times.
California Imposes Harsher Punishment for Fentanyl Possession
The various forms of fentanyl. (Courtesy of the University of Houston)
Travis Gillmore

While multiple fentanyl bills introduced in the Legislature this year designed to increase penalties for distribution were killed by lawmakers, one proposal made it to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, where he signed it into law Oct. 8.

Assembly Bill 701, authored by Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton), strengthens penalties for those convicted of possessing at least one kilogram of fentanyl—enough of the drug to kill 500,000 people, according to Drug Enforcement Administration calculations—by adding the synthetic opioid to a list of existing controlled substances regulated by California law.

“AB 701 allows us to finally take illegal fentanyl distribution as seriously as we take heroin and cocaine distribution,” Mr. Villapudua told The Epoch Times by email Oct. 16. “Given this poison is 50 times more potent than these other dangerous substances, this is a commonsense step for us to take.”

Under the new law, sentencing guidelines will recommend three-year enhancements for possession of one kilogram of fentanyl, with penalties stepping up for larger quantities and increasing up to 25 years for possession of 80 kilograms or more.

The author noted that while the new law will help, more attention regarding the surge of fentanyl use and deaths from the drug is needed.

“This is just the first of many important steps California needs to take for our families that are reeling from this tragedy,” Mr. Villapudua said. “They need to know that they remain top of mind when we are in Sacramento, and that we are taking action to hold these traffickers accountable for the devastation they are causing.”

The bill took a tumultuous path to become law, with the Assembly Public Safety Committee first blocking the measure in March—after Chair Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) suggested the proposal resembled “failed” strategies employed decades ago.

“I also remember the same kind of conversation around crack cocaine, and then we started the War on Drugs because we were scared,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer said at the time. “We do need to continue to look at ways we can do this from a public health standpoint.”

One Democratic member on the committee, Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles) argued in favor of the bill, telling his colleagues that fentanyl is different from other drugs because of its lethality and the insidious nature by which it is poisoning unsuspecting victims.

“I’m not someone who believes in penalty enhancements, I really don’t,” Mr. Zbur said. “The difference for me in this bill is that … this is a penalty enhancement that is already in place for drugs that I think are less harmful than fentanyl.”

 The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on March 11, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on March 11, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

While he voted against other bills that would have increased penalties for fentanyl possession and distribution, he said he supported AB 701 because it focused on high-level dealers.

“It’s targeted to people that are not using it or selling it on the street,” Mr. Zbur said. “It’s directed at people that are really doing horrible things to our kids.”

After four Democratic members of the safety committee chose to not vote on the measure, it initially failed, though it was brought up for reconsideration in what was described as an unprecedented special hearing in April—where it subsequently passed with no discussion or commentary permitted by the chair.

Opponents of the measure included the California Public Defenders Association, who argued the bill will fail to achieve its goals of reducing opioid dependency yet will result in more incarcerations.

“AB 701 relies on outdated War on Drugs mentality and would end up creating more harm than it would prevent,” the public defenders' group wrote in legislative analyses. “Relying on ever increasing penalties for drug offenses has been extensively researched, and we can therefore make some educated predictions about the outcome of bills like AB 701: it would not reduce the distribution of fentanyl nor would it prevent overdoses; it would reduce neither the supply of drugs or the demand for them; and worse, it could actually discourage effective methods of dealing with the opioid crisis.”

Supporters point to the increasing death toll in cities across the state—with San Francisco tallying over 600 overdose deaths this year and nearly 6,000 fentanyl overdose deaths occurring annually statewide, according to the latest statistics from the California Department of Public Health—as evidence that more needs to be done to stop the flow of synthetic opioids.

“Society and this Legislature need to send a message of intolerance to this massive misconduct,” committee member Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) said during the Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting in March.

The new law will take effect Jan. 1.