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Treatment, not punishment, ends fentanyl crisis, California lawmakers told

“A lot of people are really struggling and believe this is an unfair country to live in,” one expert told lawmakers.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — With an eye to California’s growing fentanyl crisis, members of the state Senate Public Health and Safety committees heard a progress report from numerous authorities on how the state has been handling the issue — and what steps should be taken in the future.

Democratic state Senators Aisha Wahab of Hayward and Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton chaired the joint committee meeting, during which one speaker warned the crisis isn’t because drug use is becoming more common — the drugs are becoming more dangers. That, coupled with deep-rooted societal problems, make it difficult for people to escape the cycle of addiction and the threat of death.

“A lot of people are really struggling and believe this is an unfair country to live in,” Joseph Friedman, a doctoral candidate at UCLA who studies the U.S. overdose crisis, testified.

Overdose deaths are on the rise not only across the United States but in California, now the most affected state in the country. According to figures from the California Department of Public Health, in 2021 there were 6,843 opioid-related overdose deaths in California, and 5,722 of them were linked to fentanyl. The same year, 224 teens aged 15 to 19 died from fentanyl-related overdoses in the state.

Overdose deaths in California have virtually tripled over the past three years, Friedman said. And those deaths don’t strike all groups evenly. In California, the largest numbers of fentanyl-related deaths occur among Black and Native American individuals, followed by Latinos and non-Hispanic white people.

The fentanyl crisis has to be seen as a racial justice issue, Friedman said, and noted law enforcement approaches don’t work.

Darren Urada, principal investigator for UCLA s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, said it’s important to make it as easy as possible to get into treatment.

“We need to get them into the right place, the right level of care,” he testified, adding that because these can be lengthy assessments, it’s important that they not become a barrier to accessing care. Instead, Urada urged continuation or expansion of medications, as well as more contingency management, Nalaxone distribution, greater access to fentanyl test strips, education, and lowering barriers to getting treatment through Medi-Cal.

The speakers agreed law enforcement is not the final answer to the problem, although state Senator Janet Nguyen of Orange County, the Republican vice-chair of the Senate Health Committee, wanted something more definitive than calls for more assistance.

“We keep handing you money,” she told Friedman. “Is it working?”

Friedman pointed out California spends much more on law enforcement than on social services and health care.

“Other countries have found paths but they invested heavily in health care and social services,” he replied.

Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said the answer does not lie in policies of the past.

“I strongly believe that the fentanyl crisis can’t be solved by going back to the failed War on Drug policies of the past,” Becton testified. “That also resulted in mass incarceration and negative impacts on marginalized communities.”

Criminalization alone does not work, she said, and also touted the public health approach.

The United States has not taken treatment seriously said Glenn Backes, a public policy consultant and researcher at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. Noting the dramatic differences in cost between jailing drug users — $150,000 per year — versus $6,000 to $7,000 per patient per year for treatment, Backes said the state’s priorities have been skewed.

“We’ve made very little progress because we did not take drugs seriously,” he said. “We took punishment seriously.”

Categories: Health Regional

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