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New California law requires fentanyl testing during hospital drug screenings

Photo of counterfeit pills that were laced with fentanyl.
United State Drug Enforcement Administration
Photo of counterfeit pills that were laced with fentanyl.

Republican state senator Melissa Melendez spoke with KVCR's Jonathan Linden to discussher bill SB-864, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed on August 22.

Below is a transcript of the conversation between KVCR's Jonathan Linden and California state senator Melissa Melendez.

Jonathan Linden: Just to get started here, senator Melendez, can you tell me a little bit aboutSB-864 and what some of your motivations were in writing the legislation?

Office of state senator Melissa Melendez.
Portrait of California state senator Melissa Melendez.

Melissa Melendez: Sure, I've been working on this fentanyl issue for several years now. It's been a difficult task, and getting any meaningful legislation passed through the Senate, I will tell you that, but SB-864 is a start. It requires that hospitals, when they do a drug screening test or urine drug screening test in the hospital, that they include a test for fentanyl in there. You know, if you have someone in there who you think may have overdosed, or in there for drug-related reasons... and you're able to save them, which is wonderful. But if you don't know that it was fentanyl that caused it, that makes it very difficult... for instance, for the parents to find out what's going on with their kids or for the person themselves. Maybe they didn't even know that fentanyl was in whatever they ingested, which is oftentimes the case. So part of this is educational, and part of this is making sure that we get people the help they need, and making sure that it's being tested for... is the first step in that process.

Jonathan Linden: And so this bill wasnamed after Tyler Shamash. Could you tell me a little bit about him and why you're naming this legislation after him?

Melissa Melendez: Tyler, in 2018... he died in the bathroom of a sober living home after having ingested fentanyl, which we suspect he did not even know he had ingested. The night before his death, he was treated at a local emergency room for a suspected overdose, but because he was complaining about an upset stomach... they did some testing for opioids, and everybody assumed that it would pick up fentanyl if that was in a system. Unfortunately, though, that test did not pick up fentanyl because it wasn't designed to do so. And the doctor didn't even realize that. So San Diego hospitals started doing this rapid testing for fentanyl, and it was very successful, and that's really what we modeled this legislation after… to make sure every hospital was doing that since it was such a great success in San Diego.

Jonathan Linden: And before you mentioned that it's been kind of difficult to pass bills concerning fentanyl. Why has that been the case?

Melissa Melendez: Well, one of the bills that I ran was to hold these dealers of fentanyl accountable and allow them to be charged with murder on their second offense if somebody dies as a result of them selling drugs with fentanyl in it. The obstacle that we've come across is that the majority party in Sacramento has said, well, if you take one drug dealer off the street, it doesn't matter, another one will take his place, and they don't feel that incarcerating people is the answer. And I think the parents who have lost a child to this deadly drug would very much disagree. But those are the obstacles that I've been running against.

Jonathan Linden: And so you were just talking about their points about incarceration not being the answer. Why do you feel like that is the right path in addressing these issues?

California State Sen. Melissa Melendez speaking with parents who homeschool their children on Feb. 1, 2021.
Office of state senator Melissa Melendez
California state senator Melissa Melendez speaking with parents who homeschool their children on Feb. 1, 2021.

Melissa Melendez: Well, the only way you get less people dealing this deadly drug to unsuspecting victims is to take them off the street. Now, once they're incarcerated, there are a whole host of programs that they themselves can participate in, to hopefully make sure they don't continue down that path once they get out of prison, and continue selling drugs, hopefully, you know, they make better choices in their lives. But for me, as a parent, and on behalf of all the other parents out there who have lost a child to this, I think the answer is to take the opportunity away from dealing this drug. And the answer is not to throw our hands in the air and say, well, “there's nothing that we can do,” because there certainly is something we can do.

Jonathan Linden: And to pivot here, you also had one other piece of legislation that was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Could you also tell listeners about SB-1253?

Melissa Melendez: It's a very simple bill. It just makes sure that we prioritize flood risk reduction in the governor's five-year infrastructure plan. So it incorporates in their construction operation maintenance, you know, our state plan of flood control, make sure that particularly the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area... their support for infrastructure needs is in there. And then, it aggregates the funding for the state share of the non-federal cost to make sure that we have everything covered. Because the last thing you need is for when something really bad happens, relating to flood... that there is no plan in place, and nobody knows how to respond. That's when a lot of mistakes are made. And that is likely why it didn't get any no votes, and it was certainly a bipartisan piece of legislation.

Jonathan Linden: And you have officially termed out, you just finished your last session, and your term will officially be over in December. As a Republican that served in the state senate, can you talk a little bit about maybe difficulties or the types of issues that you have to go through to try to get pieces of legislation passed in a state senate that has a democrat majority?

Melissa Melendez: It's certainly not easy, and I think California, over just the past decades, since I've been serving, has really become more and more progressive, which makes it harder to get any type of public policy through perhaps relating to law enforcement and crime… we've seen great difficulty with that, especially with drug-related issues. And I think Californians are seeing the results of that... there's certainly an increase in crime. But for Republicans in this state, we have our core beliefs and our core values, which have not changed. We want people to feel safe, we want people to be safe, and we want people to be left alone by the government. And we're going to continue with that line of thinking, and in the hopes that even perhaps more moderate Democrats, who think much like Republicans, will help us get some of these bills passed, that will most certainly help Californians in their everyday lives.

State senator Melissa Melendez speaking during a Town Hall she hosted in Canyon Lake in October 2021.
Office of state senator Melissa Melendez
State senator Melissa Melendez speaking during a Town Hall she hosted in Canyon Lake in October 2021.

Jonathan Linden: And state senator Melissa Melendez, what is next for you now that you've been termed out?

Melissa Melendez: Well, I'm going to take a deep breath, and I'm going to take a little bit of time to rest. And then, you know, probably stay in the private sector. I think my time serving the public in elected office has been a wonderful honor, but all things do come to an end, and that end is for me, and I'm going to be enjoying life as a private citizen again.

Jonathan Linden: And is there anything else that you would like to share about your bill, SB-864, or anything else?

Melissa Melendez: Well, I just hope that the folks who are still in the legislature continue this push for making sure that this fentanyl epidemic is addressed because it is killing people every single day. I mean, we've had, I think, just ten young people/kids overdose from fentanyl just in the last three weeks. It's a crisis, and the government pays attention to a lot of different things, but this is the one issue that they seem to be throwing their hands in the air and saying, "we don't know what to do." And I really hope that they take this seriously because too many lives have been lost.

Jonathan Linden: Well, state senator Melissa Melendez, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me.

Melissa Melendez: You bet. Thanks so much, Jonathan.

Jonathan Linden was a reporter at 91.9 KVCR in San Bernardino, California. He joined KVCR in July 2021 and served with the station till October 2022.