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San Diego city, county officials to pursue stricter penalties for fentanyl dealers

Todd Gloria speaks at a lectern.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, shown delivering his State of the City address in January, said last week he would seek to prioritize the city’s response to the fentanyl crisis.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said he will issue an executive order this month that directs staff to prioritize the city’s response to the fentanyl crisis.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin, federal officials say. The drug is cheap to manufacture, easy to mix with other drugs and incredibly addictive. It’s lethal in even small doses.

Last year, 812 people in San Diego County died after taking the drug. In the first six months of this year, another 825 people overdosed on fentanyl.

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“We will not make or accept excuses for letting this crisis continue to grow out of control,” Gloria said at a news conference Thursday. “We are going to own this, and we’re going to make sure we’re tackling it at every level.”

As part of the executive order, Gloria said he plans to task San Diego’s government affairs department to pursue legislation that would enhance criminal sentences when fentanyl sales result in injury and death.

Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan said at the conference that the maximum sentence someone could face for selling fentanyl, even if that sale led to a fatal overdose, is three years.

Some county law enforcement agencies pursue fentanyl deaths like homicide investigations to enable longer sentences.

In 2017, a Poway man was arrested on suspicion of selling pills laced with the drug to a friend who later overdosed and died. The suspect, Alfred Lemus, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in prison for the death. He was the first local drug dealer to be charged with murder after an overdose, city officials said.

Stephan said these kinds of cases represent a sliver of the hundreds of fentanyl-related cases her office handles every year and that new legislation upping the penalties for dealers is sorely needed.

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“Our laws are completely inadequate,” Stephan said at the conference.

Both San Diego County Sheriff-elect Kelly Martinez and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said at the conference that their officers and deputies handle drug and overdose calls nearly every day.

On Thursday morning, San Diego officers were called to a University Heights home where four people reportedly overdosed. Two of the individuals were treated with Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses, and survived. The other two died.

It’s unclear whether fentanyl was to blame.

Updates

10:15 a.m. Nov. 30, 2022: This story was updated to clarify that the number of people who died of fentanyl overdoses in the first half of this year had not been verified by the county Medical Examiner’s Office.

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