Supervisor Matt Haney speaks at the press conference outside Boeddeker Park in Tenderloin, San Francisco, Calif., on Aug. 5, 2021. Supervisor Haney announced the city’s plan to expand funding for the City’s Pit Stop public restroom program. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

As opioid and fentanyl addiction continues to take the lives of Californians, state officials have created a bipartisan committee to find a solution that pairs strategies from public health and law enforcement.

Announced by Assemblymember Matt Haney, D-San Francisco, the 11-person special committee will travel across the state to hear from addiction experts, affected residents and local government agencies to better understand how fentanyl is taking a hold on California communities.

The committee, a group of representatives from all over California, will tackle three areas of interest – public health response, law enforcement and drug sales, and current addiction treatment. The hope is to develop policies and a statewide strategy to prevent fatal overdoses.

Last year alone, over 6,000 Californians died from opioid overdoses, and the numbers this year will likely be similar, according to state public health data.

Haney said there needs to be statewide solutions, because this is an epidemic that exceeds county, city and partisan lines.

“This committee will be laser-focused on solutions and on working together. This is not something where we all have to agree, and we aren’t all going to agree on every solution,” Haney said at a press conference. “But what we do agree on is that our constituents are hurting, our communities are being devastated and we aren’t doing enough.”

He added that some local communities and counties are already implementing practices to save lives, but they need to be backed with state support, and their strategies should expand across California.

“The goal of this committee is to really help to develop state solutions, legislative solutions, and a statewide plan to respond to the opioid epidemic,” Haney said.

Keith Humphreys, Stanford psychiatry professor and former senior drug policy advisor for President Barack Obama, said that as fentanyl has moved its way from the eastern states to the West Coast, it’s coming with an “unprecedented debt” — more Californians are dying of overdose now than ever before.

“We will lose more lives to COVID-19 this year in the United States, but we will lose more years of life to drug overdoses, because the people who die are so much younger,” said Humphreys.

It’s also not just about fatal overdoses, Humphreys said, because behind every person who overdoses are dozens more living with addiction. Not only does addiction cause serious health problems for a person, but it can also inflict harm on their loved ones and their communities, he said.

“This is not possible to do if the cops and the docs are squabbling,” said Humphreys. “They really all have to work together because both their expertise and energy is needed.”

Dr. Lee Trope, a pediatrician who works with youth addicted to opioids at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said few pediatric providers are trained to care for opioid and fentanyl addiction despite its growing accessibility for teens. She often hears of youth buying what they think is Percocet, a less dangerous opioid, off of apps like Snapchat, only for it to be pure fentanyl. Her youngest patient she’s treated addicted to fentanyl was just 12 years old.

“Several had previously tried to stop ‘cold turkey’ many times, only to find withdrawal so intolerable, and help so hard to find, that they grudgingly went back to get more opioids in the street for relief,” Trope said. “I’ve learned from these kids that it’s usually harder to get help than to just keep using. We need to change that.”

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, said he’s committed to focusing on the root causes of why people turn to drugs and how socioeconomic factors like housing or job insecurity can lead people down paths to substance abuse in times of desperation.

“The time for change and solutions rooted in healing and saving lives is now,” said Bryan. “I am looking forward to joining the fellow members of this committee in identifying and uplifting those solutions.”