Considering the recent surge in fentanyl-related deaths, concerns about the drug have escalated drastically. Fentanyl has been the main driver behind a significant increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States—including California, where fentanyl has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the state.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be fatal in small doses when taken on its own. Sometimes, heroin and cocaine drug dealers lace products with fentanyl, which is cheaper. Not surprisingly, this has led to a massive increase in accidental overdoses by people who unknowingly ingest it.
Its lethal potency, coupled with its widespread availability, makes it a grave public health concern. For this reason, California has enacted strict laws imposing severe penalties for the possession or sale of fentanyl.
Lawmakers have recently passed legislation that may substantially increase those penalties beginning in 2024. If you're convicted of a fentanyl-related crime, you could face significant fines and prison time. The new law increases the penalty for selling or distributing more than one kilogram of fentanyl by automatically adding three years to the original prison sentence.
Further, the penalties will continue to increase by weight. For example, there is an additional 25 years in prison for trafficking in weights exceeding 80 kilograms.
Critics of the new law claim the threat of potentially severe prison sentences will make some people hesitant to help an overdose victim by calling emergency responders. Further, the California Public Defenders Association claims the increased penalties do little to deter people from using or selling fentanyl.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid renowned for its potency, which is approximately 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
As a pharmaceutical drug, it is approved for medical use in the management of severe pain, often in individuals who have developed resistance to other opioids.
However, due to its high potential for abuse and addiction, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
This classification indicates that while the drug has a recognized medical use, it also carries a high risk of harm, including severe psychological or physical dependence. Additionally, because of its potency, the risk of overdose from fentanyl is exceptionally high.
The street names include Apace, China Girl, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Poison and Tango & Cash.
Fentanyl is consumed by snorting, smoking, orally by pill, spiked onto blotter paper or patches, and sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances. It has been identified in fake pills that mimic pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone. Fentanyl produces effects such as the following:
- pain relief,
- urinary retention,
- pupil constriction,
- respiratory depression.
A fentanyl overdose can cause stupor, changes in pupil size, clammy skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure leading to death.
What Are the Common Crimes Charged about Fentanyl?
California law makes it illegal to possess, transport, or sell fentanyl, and it imposes stiff penalties for these crimes. Let's look at three of the most common criminal charges related to the drug.
Drug Possession – Health and Safety Code 11350 HS
Under Health and Safety Code 11350 HS, it is illegal to possess fentanyl in any amount. Even if a doctor prescribes it to you, it will be administered by the physician in a clinic.
If found guilty, this misdemeanor can lead to up to one year in county jail. If a judge grants probation instead of jail time, there will be a minimum fine of $1000 for first-time offenders and at least $2000 for subsequent offenses.
Drug Possession for Sale - Health and Safety Code 11351 HS
Suppose law enforcement discovers a larger amount of fentanyl in your possession or suspicious accompaniments such as packing supplies. In that case, prosecutors may charge you with possession of fentanyl with intent to sell under Health and Safety Code 11351 HS.
This is a more severe charge than simple possession and is always charged as a felony. If convicted, the defendant could face two, three, or four years in prison.
Drug Transportation or Sale – Health and Safety Code 11352 HS
Under Health and Safety Code 11352 HS, it is a severe felony to sell, furnish, administer, give away, transport, or import fentanyl into California, known as “trafficking.”
Conviction under this law results in three, four, or five years in prison. If the drug is transported across more than two counties, the penalty increases to three, six, or nine years in prison.
What Are the Recent Changes to Assembly Bill 701?
As noted, considering the recent surge of fentanyl-related deaths in California, state legislators have passed additional legislation to stiffen the penalties for fentanyl-related crimes to curb the trafficking of it.
Signed into law by Governor Newsome in October 2023, Assembly Bill 701 allows the penalties for fentanyl trafficking to mirror those of Schedule I drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Judges can now impose enhanced prison terms and fines in situations where the defendant was aware of the dangers of the drug when committing the offense.
Additional Sentencing – Health and Safety Code 11370.4 HS
Under Health and Safety Code 11370.4 HC, a judge can now impose additional sentences for the sale or transportation of fentanyl where the defendant "knew of the substances' nature and character as a controlled substance." The length of the additional sentence depends on the quantity of the drug involved:
- three years additional prison time for quantities greater than 1 kg and
- up to 25 additional years in prison for quantities exceeding 80 kg.
Additional Fines Health and Safety Code 11372 HS
Health and Safety Code 11372 HS now allows a judge to impose significantly higher fines for the possession, sale, or trafficking of fentanyl ($20,000 per offense).
In addition, if the defendant knew the nature of the drug and qualifies for enhanced sentencing under HSC 11370.4, the judge can also impose additional fines based on the quantity of the drug involved:
- a maximum of $1 million for quantities greater than 1kg and
- up to $8 million for quantities exceeding 10 kg.
If you are accused of a drug crime involving fentanyl, contact our California criminal defense lawyers for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.