Desperate to stem the nightmare rise of deadly fentanyl overdoses in their counties, district attorneys in Orange and Riverside are hoping to charge drug dealers with murder if their customers die from the synthetic opioid, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Under the plan, outlined Tuesday in a press release from Orange D.A. Todd Spitzer, some fentanyl deaths would be classified as poisonings, not accidental overdoses.
Dealers convicted of an array of drug-related offenses—including possession for sale of cocaine, heroin and opiates most commonly containing fentanyl; loitering to commit a controlled substance offense; and transportation of a controlled substance for sale—would first be officially advised about the dangers of drugs. Next, those dealers would be given a one-time warning that if they resume business and someone dies as a result, they can be charged with murder.
“These are not overdoses. These are murders,” Spitzer said in the statement. “These dealers are essentially handing a loaded gun to unsuspecting victims knowing that they will probably die and they don’t care.”
According to Spitzer, fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed by 1,000 percent in Orange County over the last five years, while they’ve gone up 1,513 percent statewide in the same period.
At a press conference Tuesday, ABC 7 reports, Riverside D.A. Mike Hestrin told reporters, “In Riverside County in 2016 there were two fentanyl-related deaths. Two. This year we’re on pace to have between 500-600 fentanyl-related deaths.”
Hestrin tells the station that he has already filed seven murder-by-drug cases, and that he has three more in the works, while Spitzer says he’s currently building a case of his own.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, however, was elected last year on a reform platform, and he is not onboard.
“We have been down this road before: we know that increased penalties for drug offenses do not save lives,” Gascon adviser Alex Bastian tells the Los Angeles Times. “Over the last three decades, as we increased penalties, drugs became more potent, cheaper and easier to access. We need to learn from the failed strategies of the past, in order to find solutions for the future.”
O.C. public defender Martin Schwarz also finds Spitzer’s plan to be legal non-starter, pointing out that California prosecutors have already tried and failed to get the Legislature to change the laws to make such lawyerly voodoo possible.
“Unless the Legislature changes course,” he tells the Times, “there continues to be no legal basis for the courts to allow this.”
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