Growing Division Among California Democrats Stalls Fentanyl Bill Again Amid Fiery Protests by Victims’ Families
Growing Division Among California Democrats Stalls Fentanyl Bill Again Amid Fiery Protests by Victims’ Families

By Travis Gillmore

SACRAMENTO—A series of outbursts echoed in the chambers of a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on April 25 following comments indicating a bill—designed to warn fentanyl dealers of potential murder charges—would not proceed, with one victim’s family member yelling at the representatives on his way out the door, as Democratic lawmakers fought over amended language.

“I feel frustration, irritation, despair, and deep sympathy for the families that came … it breaks my heart,” Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) told The Epoch Times. “They’re not doing this for themselves. Their children are gone.”

The bill’s failure comes after its language was reworked following the committee’s 4–1 decision not to pass the legislation on March 28.

“I’m stunned,” Umberg said in a press release April 25 following the hearing. “It’s very difficult to comprehend the committee’s view on this simple admonishment. We have worked on this measure for the past 6 months, engaged in hundreds of conversations, and taken numerous rounds of amendments.”

California state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) speaks at a Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 25, 2023. (Screenshot via California State Senate)

After a long line of supporters spoke in person and via phone during the committee meeting, Umberg the co-author of Senate Bill 44—also known as Alexandra’s Law—defended the text of the proposal in a back-and-forth debate with Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

At issue is the language of the bill, designed to resemble what’s known as the Watson Advisement given to those convicted of driving under the influence. The admonishment warns that any future convictions that result in death can result in murder charges.

While the committee’s analysis described the proposed language as “mirroring” the current DUI law, in session they contested that assessment and argued that it was not the same.

Wiener argued the bill would potentially cause more people than intended to receive the advisory warning, subjecting them to a lifelong threat of enhanced charges, including murder.

“This is not a warning. It’s recorded on the conviction,” Wiener challenged. “Comparing this to DUI is not a fair comparison.”

Umberg adamantly opposed his Democratic colleague, insisting the language is an educational component, and not a punishment.

“This is one tool,” he said. “This needs to be an all-in, all-efforts approach.”

A series of protests and outbursts from fentanyl overdose victims’ family members in response to the debate prompted vice-chair Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) to call for order and decorum on multiple occasions during the hour-long discussion.

Matt Capelouto, the father of fentanyl poisoning victim Alexandra—the namesake of the bill —testified to the committee, telling them he was “furious and emotional.”

Alexandra died two days before Christmas in 2019 after consuming five times the lethal amount of fentanyl concealed in counterfeit oxycodone.

During the debate, he stormed out of the Capitol hearing room loudly protesting the committee’s lack of action.

Matt Capelouto, the father of fentanyl poisoning victim Alexandra—the namesake of California’s Senate Bill 44—testifies at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 25, 2023. (Screenshot via California State Senate)

“It’s unbelievable what they’re doing in there,” Capelouto told The Epoch Times after the hearing concluded. “It’s disgusting.”

On the public side, the meeting was standing room only, with a line of people waiting outside for a chance to enter the proceedings.

More than a dozen family members impacted by fentanyl spoke in support of the bill, with several carrying photos of their deceased loved ones.

A mother holding a photo of her son, a fentanyl poisoning victim, voices support for fentanyl legislation at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 25, 2023. (Screenshot via California State Senate)

Many more called in to tell the committee their story, with more than a dozen ending their call with the question: “How many more have to die before you will act?”

Yet there was never a moment when all five committee members were present at the same time during the discussion and with committee chair Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) and the bill’s co-author, Ochoa Bogh, absent due to scheduling conflicts, none of the three remaining members chose to vote on the legislation.

The result leaves the bill without a path forward, the second such occurrence since it first failed in the same committee March 28. There will not be another chance for the bill this year due to the April 28 deadline for lawmakers to consider legislation with fiscal impact.

“The committee intended to and did kill the bill,” Umberg told The Epoch Times. “Their actions speak for themselves.”

California state Sen. Tom Umberg (R), D-Santa Ana, speaks in Sacramento on fentanyl legislation on April 25, 2023. (Travis Gillmore/The Epoch Times)

Frustration in the audience was palpable, with a row of victims’ family members interjecting and demanding action from the committee, only to be silenced by the rules of order.

“This bill has a majority of the senators supporting it, yet this committee of five is preventing it from getting to the floor,” Capelouto said. “I’ve been here for three years fighting this.”

A prior version of Alexandra’s Law, Senate Bill 350, was introduced in February 2021 by Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) but twice failed to pass the same public safety committee, once in March 2021 and again in January 2022.

Lawmakers attempted to revive the legislation last December with the creation of SB 44.

The bill has bipartisan support including 21 co-authors.

“I’m yet again heartbroken at the committee’s decision to not pass SB 44 today,” Ochoa Bogh said in a press release following the decision. “This is not just a crisis; it’s thousands of individual tragedies … let me be clear: this is not the end of our fight.”

District attorneys, law enforcement officials, and representatives for city councils across the state spoke out in support at the hearing.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria testified in support of the bill, telling the panel fentanyl is the number one killer of homeless people in his city.

“Take the opportunity to save lives,” he said. “The crisis is urgent.”

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 25, 2023. (Screenshot via California State Senate)

After the legislation failed, his office said Gloria will stay committed to solving the fentanyl problem.

“Mayor Gloria believes there is no time to waste and that we should be taking immediate action on every level—from local law enforcement to state and federal legislation—to get it under control,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office told The Epoch Times in a statement April 25.

A second piece of legislation targeting fentanyl, Senate Bill 226—authored by Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil (D-Oakdale)—passed the committee. The bill adds “illicit fentanyl” to the list of narcotics prohibited when in possession of a loaded firearm.

Five additional fentanyl bills will be reconsidered April 27 by the Assembly Public Safety Committee, following vetoes earlier this year by chair Sen. Reginald Jones-Sawyer.

Leaders stymied by SB 44’s defeat are hopeful that the proposed bills will now pass the committee.

“We need meaningful fentanyl legislation that can be voted on by the Assembly and Senate very soon,” Umberg told The Epoch Times. “This epidemic is not going to wait for us to figure out how to address it … Thousands of Californians are going to die here, and it’s our responsibility to take action.”

Fentanyl was responsible for more than 100,000 U.S. deaths in the 12-month period ending August 2022, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tears could be seen in the eyes of family members after the hearing, with a look of confused frustration and disbelief.

“Delays like this one on common-sense state legislation like SB 44 ignore the reality of what’s happening in our cities and will cost more people their lives while dealers are let off the hook,” San Diego Mayor’s office said.

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