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Some California D.A.s are fighting fentanyl with murder charges. Why San Francisco will join them

Hannah Wiley, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SAN FRANCISCO — County by county in California, as fentanyl overdoses escalate, local prosecutors are turning to a novel legal strategy to stem the spiraling death toll: charging drug dealers with murder.

In July, Placer County reached a landmark plea deal that sent a man to prison for 15 years-to-life on charges of second-degree murder after he provided a Roseville teenager with a fentanyl-contaminated pill that proved lethal.

A month later, a Riverside County jury issued a first-of-its-kind verdict against another man who supplied a lethal dose of a fentanyl-laced pill to a 26-year-old woman. He also was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to at least 15 years in prison.

District attorneys in Sacramento, Fresno, San Joaquin, San Bernardino and San Diego counties are using similar blueprints: going after alleged fentanyl dealers for homicide rather than drug sales, in hopes that the threat of harsher criminal penalties will ease an opioid crisis that killed more than 7,300 Californians in 2022.

Many of the counties adopting the aggressive legal strategy are in "purple" or "red" areas of California, where more conservative law enforcement leaders have long embraced a tough-on-crime philosophy. Now, San Francisco city leaders — famous for their ultraliberal politics — are preparing to follow suit.

Mayor London Breed, police officials and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins are in the final stages of forming a law enforcement task force charged with investigating opioid deaths and illicit drug dealing in the city as potential homicide cases. The effort is set to launch this spring.

 

In an October statement announcing the initiative, Breed said people selling the synthetic opioid are "on notice that pushing this drug could lead to homicide charges." Jenkins said the effort would make it easier to hold dealers "accountable for the true dangerousness of their conduct."

It's a remarkable shift in rhetoric and strategy for a city regularly lambasted by right-wing pundits as an anything-goes sanctuary for drug dealers and users. The new approach marks a decided bow to mounting pressure from residents and business leaders for the city to rein in an illicit drug culture that has fed the ranks of homelessness and transformed some downtown neighborhoods into squalid open-air drug markets where people are using — and dying — in the streets.

The move toward tougher penalties for dealers comes after other high-profile public initiatives have failed to turn the tide in San Francisco's drug deaths. In late 2021, Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin area that in theory made it easier to expand and connect users with treatment and detox services.

In May of last year, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed the California National Guard and California Highway Patrol to San Francisco to assist with investigations and prosecution of drug trafficking networks supplying the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. As of late January, the operation had resulted in 460 arrests and the confiscation of 18,000 grams of fentanyl and 5,000 grams of methamphetamine, according to the governor's office.

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