Riverside County law enforcement officials Wednesday joined a state lawmaker and families of victims “poisoned” by fentanyl, calling on the public to support legislative and other efforts aimed at stemming the “tide and scourge” of the deadly synthetic drug.

The initial goal of the gathering was to rally behind state Sen. Melissa Melendez’s Senate Bill 350, which sought to establish a written advisory for anyone convicted of manufacturing, producing or selling fentanyl.

The advisory would have warned that repeating the conduct and causing someone’s death because of it in the future could mean charges of voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder, facilitating prosecutors’ ability to file those charges.

Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said that the Senate Committee on Public Safety killed her bill Tuesday, repeating what it did in March 2021.

“From my perspective, it seems as though the Legislature is not serious about dealing with this epidemic,” she said. “Kids are dying from people selling this poison. We need the public’s help.”

Calls seeking comment from committee Chairman Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Inglewood, were not immediately returned.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said a change in the law is long overdue.

“It’s impossible now to avoid fentanyl,” Hestrin said. “It’s pouring into our country in shocking numbers, and it’s finding its way mixed into all illicit drugs sold on the street. We need to be able to bring justice and deter that conduct. That’s the way we begin to fight against the tide and scourge of fentanyl.”

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, a former legislator, said Melendez’s bill was killed because there is “an absolute effort by the governor and majority of legislators to open the doors and let people out of prison.

“They are obstructionists. They want to provide get-out-of-jail free cards, and there’s a complete lack of sympathy for the victims,” Spitzer continued. “Remember, these aren’t overdoses. They’re poisonings. People are taking illicit drugs, yes, but they don’t know they’re … ingesting fentanyl. Young, innocent, unsuspecting people are dying.”

Spitzer said the OC’s tally from 2021 is 512 confirmed fentanyl-related fatalities and another 400 suspected ones. In Riverside County, Sheriff Chad Bianco said the data is pending, but it appears there were roughly 500 fentanyl-induced deaths last year, which would represent a 250-fold increase from 2016, when only two such fatalities were documented.

“Fentanyl poisonings are killing our residents at an alarming rate,” the sheriff said. “It’s a substantial crisis for California and the nation. We have to come to the realization that criminals are out there preying on our residents, and they need to be held accountable.”

In the last year, Riverside County prosecutors charged 10 people with second-degree murder for selling fentanyl with fatal results. Hestrin and Bianco said the work necessary to justify a murder complaint is lengthy and exhausting, but they’re pressing ahead to send a message, despite no help from the state.

Spitzer said that last year he unilaterally implemented the very admonition Melendez’s legislation would have put in place because he wanted drug dealers to know that “if you peddle fentanyl and kill somebody, we will absolutely charge you with murder.”

The synthetic opioid is manufactured in China and shipped to Mexico, where drug cartels then smuggle it across the border, according to authorities. It’s known to be 80-100 times more potent than morphine and is a popular additive, seamlessly mixed into many types of narcotics and pharmaceuticals.

“It’s all about profit and greed,” Hestrin said. “We’re not getting help at our southern border. We’re overwhelmed.”

Matt Capelouto, who lost his 20-year-old daughter Alexandra to fentanyl poisoning in December 2019, claimed that statistics show more people in the 18-45 age group died from fentanyl ingestion in 2020 than all “COVID, cancer, suicide and motor vehicle accidents combined” that year.

Capelouto, who founded several organizations, including the Fentanyl Awareness Coalition and Victims of Illicit Drugs, said supplies of the counterfeit drug “are flooding our county. It’s astronomical and getting worse.”

“These drugs, made from sources in China, are used (like) a chemical weapon attack,” he said. “My daughter didn’t want to die. She took one pill, and it was not a wise choice. Everybody in the supply chain needs to be held accountable. The drug dealers, the cartels in Mexico, right back to China. This war is not fought with bullets. They’re poisoning us from within.”

Capelouto said if there’s no action legislatively, then Californians should resort to the public initiative process. Supporters have already set up a website for that purpose: www.OnePillKills.com.

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