In announcing a new joint task force between the state and the City of San Francisco, Governor Newsom and Mayor Breed vow that they’ll start having fentanyl dealers charged with murder when a user dies from an accidental overdose.
As the fentanyl overdose crisis rages in San Francisco (and really the whole nation), locally, SF DA Brooke Jenkins announced last year she wanted to charge fentanyl dealers with murder in cases of fatal overdoses. But the Chronicle noted today that there are no such cases currently pending from her office.
Still, it is not unprecedented; one Placer County man was sentenced to 15 years on murder charges for providing his young romantic partner fentanyl (she thought it was oxycodone), and another Placer County dealer was convicted of manslaughter in relation to a fentanyl overdose last year.
Governor Gavin Newsom wants to see more of these murder charges, particularly in SF. On Friday, Newsom, Mayor Breed, and an alphabet soup of state and local agencies declared a joint California-SF task force to investigate opioid overdoses, and according to KRON4, Newsom and Mayor Breed want fentanyl dealers charged with murder in cases of fatal overdoses.
“The opioid crisis has claimed too many, and fentanyl traffickers must be held accountable including, as appropriate, for murder,” Newsom said in the announcement. “This task force is fighting for those affected by this crisis — for victims and loved ones who deserve peace. Working together, we will continue providing treatment and resources to help those struggling with substance use — and secure justice for families who have lost loved ones.”
This task force will start in 2024, and investigate opioid overdose cases. If they can trace the opioid sale back to a certain dealer (and that’s a big if), that dealer could be prosecuted for homicide.
“Traditionally, overdoses have not been investigated as murders,” DA Jenkins added in the release. “Now, working together we will be able to investigate fatal fentanyl overdoses where evidence may be collected to establish a connection to the person who provided the drugs that killed someone so that they can possibly be charged with murder.”
Task forces are often kind of a running government joke, the old “blue ribbon panel” that tries to make headlines though may be ineffective at getting any results. But this task force represents a serious and substantial policy shift. It could get results, or it could backfire.
Count SF Public Defender Mano Raju in the camp that thinks it will backfire. “Since the opioid public health crisis began in our city about three years ago, law enforcement and city leaders have formed numerous task forces that have enacted War on Drugs tactics, and overdoses have only increased,” Raju told KRON4. “In fact, San Francisco is on track to reach a record number of overdoses this year.”
Again, a murder charge would require law enforcement to connect the overdose with a certain, specific dealer who provided the drugs, and that may represent a very limited percentage of cases. Moreover, there may be some legal hurdle to prove the overdose victim thought they were using a drug other than fentanyl, which is common in overdose cases, but may pose a high burden for proof.
But as 2023 will almost certainly be SF's deadliest year ever for overdoses, there's pressure on Breed (and Newsom) to at least make it look like they're trying novel solutions to a problem that's exploding on their watch.
Image” SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 22: California Lt. Gov. and California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom (R) talks with San Francisco mayor London Breed (L) as they visit the Alice Griffith Apartments on August 22, 2018 in San Francisco, California. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco mayor London Breed toured a low-income housing complex. Newsom leads Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox by an average of 23 percentage points in recent polls. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)