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Duarte, local law enforcement seek federal funds to combat Valley’s fentanyl crisis
Duarte presser
Rep. John Duarte (right) is joined Friday by law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and public health officials at the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office to unveil the HIDTA Reauthorization Act of 2024 that seeks federal funding to combat drug trafficking in the Central Valley. - photo by Joe Cortez

With drug-related deaths up 750 percent in California’s 13th Congressional District, Rep. John Duarte (R-Hughson) is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would secure more than $300 million annually to help combat the nation’s fentanyl crisis.

In his first term representing the 13th CD, Duarte was joined Friday by a bevy of law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and public health officials at the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office to unveil the HIDTA Reauthorization Act of 2024.

There are 33 high-intensity drug trafficking areas across the nation, and the Central Valley HIDTA, which stretches from the Oregon border to Kern County, includes the 13th Congressional District, of which the city of Ceres and Stanislaus County are a part.

“Throughout the Valley and across the country, our communities have felt the impacts of fentanyl,” said Duarte. “This is an epidemic. It’s out of control. Drug overdoses are the No. 1 killer of young people ages 18 to 45 right now in America. It’s a real issue.”

The bill — co-sponsored by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.), Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.), and Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) — would reauthorize the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program at $302 million annually through fiscal year 2030. That’s a $22 million annual increase above current funding levels.

Administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the HITDA program is designed to increase information and resource sharing between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

“This drug problem across our country has multiple facets to it,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse. “There’s a supply and a demand, and there’s a demand here in America. It is our people who are using those drugs and that is really a public health crisis. In law enforcement, our role is interdicting supply.”

That supply is formidable. Last year in the Central Valley HIDTA, 8,800 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 900 pounds of cocaine, and more than 320 pounds of fentanyl were seized.

“And that’s just powdered fentanyl,” noted Dirkse. “Over 4.1 million separate doses — so, pills — of fentanyl were seized. That’s not part of that part of that powdered fentanyl category. Of those 4.1 million pills that were seized, 60 to 70 percent of those have a fatal level of fentanyl in them.”

In Stanislaus County alone, 58 pounds of powdered fentanyl was seized.

“Depending on if it’s completely pure, that is enough fentanyl to wipe out about half of the United States, pretty much everybody west of the Mississippi River,” said Dirkse. “For every dollar spent the Central Valley HIDTA returns $712 in street value of drugs seized. That is a really smart use of taxpayer dollars to address the supply issue.”

Wendell Emerson, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Stanislaus County, agreed that HIDTA funding is vitally important.

“We need resources to do these intensive investigations and complex prosecutions to dismantle these drug trafficking organizations,” said Emerson. “And this HIDTA bill does exactly that. It gives us the tools to effectively combat this crisis. And that’s why Stanislaus County District Attorney Jeff Laugero is enthusiastically supporting this legislation because it will help fight this crisis.”

Laugero was not present at the event.

In the U.S., nearly 300 people per day — about one every five minutes — dies from a drug-related overdose. Of those, two-thirds are due to opioids.

Stanislaus County recorded 121 drug-related deaths last year, while San Joaquin (119) and Fresno (135) counties had similar totals. According to Deputy District Attorney Patrick Hogan, the major narcotics prosecutor in the DA’s office, fentanyl has taken over the drug trade in the past five years.

“What I always say any time I talk publicly is, ‘Can anyone begin to imagine what would happen, what the public outcry would be, what the political outcry would be, if we were losing hundreds people every year to gun violence in this county?’” said Hogan. “But because it’s drug overdoses, it’s so easy for so many people to ignore. This is a disaster that people are starting to ignore. It is a plague that people are starting to treat like it’s normal. As a deputy district attorney, I prosecute people in this county who not only sell fentanyl, but sell fentanyl resulting in death. I know these stories. They are not statistics to me. I know their families, I know their backgrounds, I know the dreams they had, and I know how they died.”

One of the stories Hogan knows all too well is that of Connor Hoffmann, who died from a drug overdose in 2021.

Hoffman’s case marked the first time in Stanislaus County that a drug dealer was convicted of murder in an overdose death.

Hoffman’s mother, Christie Hoffmann, spoke at Friday’s press conference.

“I have images in my mind of finding him that morning that spin through my head all day, every day,” said Hoffman, the daughter of former Modesto police officer Jim Waterman. “I am working with a counselor right now, trying to help with that. I’ve grown a lot in that I was never the type of person before that would ever do anything like this. And, here I am. Turns out when you’re passionate about something, and you have a ‘why,’ you step up and do whatever you can.”

Duarte, who is expected to face a tough re-election challenge this year from former Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), is positive that his bill can sidestep Washington gridlock that has plagued so much other legislation. He thinks the HIDTA program should be bigger, and he plans to make it bigger in the future. But in today’s political climate, he sees this as a solid first step.

“The positive thing about this bill is also the shame of this bill,” said Duarte. “There’s is so much more room than this small beginning we have with $300 million. We need to get this through so we don’t lapse the program, and keep it active, and expand it a bit. But this is a program that needs to be in the high single-digit billions, where we can integrate the federal intelligence and drug intervention resources, with local efforts to interdict, arrest, seize, and hopefully prosecute and imprison.”