Fentanyl: An Unprecedented Poisoning

June 14, 2023

107,500 people died last year of drug-related deaths – over 21,000 in California alone. Illegal drugs are now the number one cause of death for those between ages 24-45. To put that into perspective, more people died of drug-related deaths last year than the number of service members lost in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan COMBINED. This is a level of death and destruction that should frighten every parent, teacher, health professional, cop, and lawmaker.

Most disturbingly, over 2/3 of these losses are linked to synthetic substances like fentanyl. While some of those deaths may be attributed to people with substance use disorder who specifically sought out fentanyl, the reality is that the vast majority are those who believed they are getting something else (Percocet, Adderall, Xanax, Heroin) and don’t know they are taking fentanyl or drugs laced with fentanyl. Among teenagers, overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids like fentanyl tripled in the past two years, yet 73% have never heard of fake prescription pills being made with fentanyl.

As the former Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House and federal prosecutor, I am uncomfortably and intimately familiar with nature of drug use and substance use disorder -- but this fentanyl crisis IS ABSOLUTELY NOT the same as the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or any other drug overdose epidemic that has ravaged our nation for the past decade.

While any purchase of drugs from the street or black market inherently carries a risk, what we are seeing today is the unprecedented poisoning of young Americans.

  • There is no fear of addiction, or need to ask for help when a victim dies almost immediately of a substance they never assumed would kill them.
  • There is no thought to seek out a safe injection site when you believe you and your friends are sharing some cocaine socially at a party over the weekend. You assume the worst possibility is an overdose and that someone will be there to help you – not that you will all die within minutes of each other.
  • There is no thought to carrying Naloxone and using it if you plan to take a Xanax before a plane ride to calm your nerves.
  • A 15-year old seeking Adderall to help stay awake to study for finals but who dies almost immediately has no ability to make use of California’s 911 Good Samaritan Law.

Put simply, standard harm reduction tools are not a silver bullet for tackling fentanyl.

We must address the fentanyl crisis through the lens of poisoning and it needs to be multi-pronged in its approach. It must incorporate education, public outreach, harm reduction, community programming, recovery and rehabilitation programs, and it must absolutely include our public safety officials who are on the front lines of this crisis every day.

Because this crisis requires all hands on deck, I have introduced:
- Senate Bill 60 – Social Media Drug Sales Prevention

  • Social media has become a main source of illicit drugs and fentanyl for young people, in particular. SB 60 allows people to take legal action against social media companies who fail to remove drug content in a timely manner.

- Senate Bill 250 – 9-1-1 Good Samaritan Law/Fentanyl Immunity

  • SB 250 expands California’s 9-1-1 Good Samaritan Law to include reporting from medical devices (like smart watches, at-home blood tests, at-home drug test kits and others). It also expands immunity to those who use tools like fentanyl test strips, find their product to be contaminated, and report their dealer.

- Senate Concurrent Resolution 39 – National Fentanyl Awareness Day

  • Establishing the second Tuesday of May as Fentanyl Awareness Day for the purposes of awareness, education, and outreach.

Senate Bill 44 – Alexandra’s Law

SB 44 is jointly authored by Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) and co-authored by 21 members of the California State Senate. Nicknamed Alexandra’s Law, SB 44 will implement a Fentanyl Admonishment in California, similar to the Watson Advisement given to DUI offenders. Under SB 44, those who are charged with, or who plead to, selling fentanyl would receive a warning that fentanyl is rampant and often knowingly (or unknowingly) laced into myriad drugs AND it kills. If you sell fentanyl or a drug with fentanyl and you kill somebody you may be prosecuted for homicide.

SB 44 is a common sense approach that understands the nature of drug use and the drug trade in 2023. It will provide our law enforcement officials with a tool to hold drug sellers accountable for their role in this increasing devastation. And, taken as one piece of comprehensive, holistic effort, it can help to save lives.

SB 44 does not stand alone, but it must be passed as a part of a comprehensive package to ensure that we are using every resource available to end this crisis. The death toll from fentanyl has reach such outstanding numbers that we, as elected officials, are obligated to do everything we absolutely can to stem this tide. The lives of our children, family members, and friends depend on it.