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California boasts confiscating almost 6 million fentanyl pills while experts call for more preventative measures

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Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that 5.8 million fentanyl-laced pills were confiscated throughout California by the state’s Counterdrug Task Force in collaboration with local and federal law enforcement agencies.

As the state government celebrates consistently increasing confiscations of the synthetic opioid, though, experts say that the seizures will not affect the illicit drug market significantly.

Over the last three years, the number of fentanyl-laced pills confiscated statewide have increased dramatically. In 2021, only 1.5 million pills were seized statewide. That number jumped almost tenfold to 10.3 million pills seized in 2022. Again, that number more than doubled in 2023 to 22.2 million pills containing fentanyl collected throughout the state.

“Illegal fentanyl has no place in our neighborhoods,” Newsom said in a statement announcing the seizures. “California is tackling this problem head-on by holding drug traffickers accountable and increasing seizures, while at the same time expanding access to substance abuse treatment options and providing life-saving, affordable reversal medicine to Californians statewide.”

Brandon Hill, director of the Office of Strategic Communications in the California Military Department said that, if this year’s pace remains consistent, 18 million pills could be collected by the end of 2024, which is a “slight decline” from last year’s total.

California has a plan to use Newsom’s billion-dollar investment to tackle the fentanyl and opioid crisis. According to the state’s 2023 master plan, $30 million has been poured into expanding the California National Guard through initiatives to hire, train and embed more members and funding fentanyl seizures. Half of that money was set to be used over the next two years to establish and operate the Fentanyl Enforcement Program to combat manufacturing, distribution and trafficking.

But Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and addiction researcher at Stanford University, said that while he salutes law enforcement’s work in getting the drug off the streets, these large seizures aren’t hard for traffickers to replace.

Humphreys said that fentanyl was introduced to the streets by traffickers who took advantage of the low cost of production, not necessarily because people wanted to use it.

However, because fentanyl is so cheap and easy to produce, drug enforcement policies that have stood in place for years don’t apply, Humphreys said. If an equivalent amount of heroin had been seized by law enforcement, the market would be hindered because producers would have to wait for poppy plants to grow and supply the ingredients to make heroin. But drug traffickers dealing fentanyl can replace supplies quickly after law enforcement seizures because the drug is completely synthetic.

“We’ve never had an illicit drug this potent on the markets in this country,” Humphreys said. “The best we can do is damage control.”

Jerel Ezell, assistant professor of community health sciences and director of the Center for Cultural Humility at UC Berkeley, echoed Humphrey’s sentiment, saying that the number of pills confiscated statewide doesn’t mean much, because there doesn’t need to be a lot of pills on the market to have a devastating societal effect.

Both Humphreys and Ezell said that strictly punishing people involved in the illicit drug market won’t entirely solve the issue either. Incarcerating low-level drug dealers is “like playing whack-a-mole”, Ezell said, because the government can’t necessarily catch every dealer out there, and even when they do get caught, the producers can hire someone else to replace them. However, the penalties do matter when they affect people with “unique skills,” Humphreys said, like an accountant moving money around or a well-connected importer.



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