YORBA LINDA, CA – As I walked into the Nixon Library to attend the first California recall gubernatorial debate, I encountered an organized group of peaceful protestors with poster-sized signs of children killed by fentanyl, held by grief-stricken parents. The organizer of the group, Drug Induced Homicide, Matt Capelouto, understood that the 100 people attending this event were likely to be influencers in politics and the community. Matt asked if I could talk to the candidates and especially frontrunner Larry Elder, due to his proximity to the African American community, where the most fentanyl deaths have occurred in California. Touched by the images I saw, I scheduled a follow up conversation with him and we spoke for a solid hour about the issue and his own story.
Matt’s daughter, Alexandra, died in her own bed two days before Christmas, after popping a pain relief pill she didn’t know was laced with fentanyl. Matt then began a journey that led to the halls of the Sacramento legislature to push “Alexandra’s Law” (SB-350), which simply sought to make first time drug dealers sign an advisory statement, recognizing that their actions could cause death. This would allow for easier manslaughter sentencing, should they get arrested again. What he found was a supermajority in the legislature couldn’t even pass no-brainer bills like this out of committee. He also found that the practical reality, because of these convoluted laws, is that the drug dealer could get locked up for a year or less and be out on the streets again, causing more harm.
Matt got to explore this issue in a way no one else has, from being a survivor to this tragedy, to being an activist and fighter on this issue to bring justice to his daughter. As a seasoned fighter, he recognized this is now the time to strike. When asked why he chose to organize a group in front of the library, Matt said he wanted to make this a campaign issue, and hopes every gubernatorial candidate talks about this. His goal is public awareness and education of simple things like the misnomer of “overdose” and how most fentanyl deaths are not due to a high quantity of pills being consumed, but one pill containing too much of the drug, leading to death. Matt wants children to learn these things in school, and hopes for an educational measure, citing that fentanyl deaths have far surpassed deaths by drunk driving. A public awareness campaign is needed and laws need to be changed, such as what he did with SB350.
Mexican drug cartels and China have been the number one exporters of fentanyl, but it is our Californian policies that exacerbate that problem. A key entryway from Asia, San Francisco, had more deaths from fentanyl than COVID last year. Billions of pills are now coming across the border. Black market pills typically contain fentanyl of varying levels. The three most common counterfeited pills, which end up having fentanyl are oxycodone, percocet and xanax. 16-24 year olds are hit the hardest. But because we live in a prescription pill society, many think a pill is safe because it “looks like” it was made in a lab. Matt says, “kids are supposed to learn from their mistakes, not die from them”.
Instead of treating the problem, decreased sentencing through Prop 47 in 2014 has removed an important bargaining chip during the sentencing process for offenders to go through treatment and training, giving them a chance at a second life. Possession and distribution of drugs used to be a felony charge, with a sentence of 5 years in prison. Now, it has been downgraded to a misdemeanor, which gets you up to 10 days in jail. This took away a District Attorney’s tool to incentivize an addict to get clean through a state rehabilitation program, thereby reducing the harsher sentence and setting them on the right path. Now, addicts are back on the streets with no consequence, leading to more homelessness and deeper drug addiction.
Most importantly for the actual drug dealers, profiting from the demise of their customer base, they are still running around because of Prop 47. Matt says, “these drug dealers are serial killers”. The sentence is only 2 years, but if this was a non-violent crime, it is automatically cut in half. To reduce the jail population and overcrowding, county jail is not long term housing, so it’s filled up and they let many people go early to make room. Practically speaking, a convicted drug dealer gets one year in jail, at most.
Nowhere is it seen more potently than in Los Angeles County today, with rising homelessness, compounding crime and fentanyl casualties. While this trend was already increasing consistently after the institution of Prop 47, this year saw a marked increase in cases and deaths. This can be attributed to the increasing boldness of drug dealers, emboldened by District Attorney George Gascon. As co-author of Prop 47, he seeks to take “compassionate” criminal justice reform to an activist level now that he is in office, by declining to prosecute misdemeanors related to drug paraphernalia, or drug dealers with enhancements. His past record in San Francisco speaks for itself, destroying a once-beautiful city and tourist destination, which has now devolved into homeless-overrun streets and overall dystopia. Some moves he made included legalizing heroin-use needle programs, which does nothing but enable addiction and exacerbates the overall societal problem. The numbers now show crime spiking across the board since he took office in Los Angeles.
The “implied malice” standard, the specific knowledge that the drug dealer was selling or distributing is harmful to human life, is hard to prove. Which is why SB350 was so important but it couldn’t even get out of committee as Senators Weiner voted no and Skinner, Bradford and Kamlager voted to abstain. Only Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh had the guts to vote yes on Senator Melissa Melendez’s bill. Both are Republicans. SB350 would have created a record of implied malice, without the extraordinary effort a District Attorney has to go through to prove it. Currently, it requires a second drug-related death for a dealer to be tried, which essentially gives them one “freebie”. There is something terribly wrong with the system as is, for allowing this.
The Democrats in power are clearly not listening to the community. Not only did Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) endorse Alexandra’s Law, but so did law enforcement groups and over 300 groups and 90 minutes of phone calls during public comment, approximately 130 calls. The opposition only had 7 letters of support and 15 calls from organizations like Public Defender’s Association, which is naturally on the side of criminals. Our elected officials are clearly not listening to “We The People”.
It is time for a change in leadership and it needs to start top down, from the Governor’s position, to removing District Attorneys, like Los Angeles DA Gascon, who refuse to enforce the law resulting in these deaths, down to the local level. If we keep the same people in power, Matt and Alexandra will never get justice.