By Mary O’KEEFE
Law enforcement, emergency responders, school administrators and those who work on drug use issues have been ringing the warning bell for quite a while regarding fentanyl use. It is a drug that has become incredibly popular and unbelievably dangerous.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were about 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. during 2021. That is an estimated 15% increase from 2020. In 2021, there were 71,238 deaths due to synthetic opioids-fentanyl compared to the number of 2020 deaths (57,834).
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally. Like morphine, it is a medicine that typically is used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery. Tolerance occurs when users need a higher and/or more frequent amount of a drug to get the desired effects, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Glendale Police Dept. Captain Robert William is on a mission to get as much information about fentanyl out to the public as he can. One of his outreach efforts is sending the department’s detectives to speak at community events. These detectives see the effects of fentanyl use on a daily basis. He also performs a lot of outreach to the community.
“Fentanyl is being traced in everything right now,” he said. “The [drug] cartels are making a lot more money.”
Fentanyl is a cheap drug that is used by drug dealers to expand their product. For example, they may have a pound of methamphetamine and a pound of fentanyl. By mixing them together they have twice the amount to sell. Fake pills may be “stamped” as OxyContin or Xanax, but consist more of fentanyl than anything else.
Producing illicit fentanyl is not an exact science. Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) analysis has found counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 milligrams (the latter more than twice the lethal dose), of fentanyl per tablet, according to the DEA. Of the pills tested for fentanyl by the DEA, 42% contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl, considered a potentially lethal dose.
“People ask me, ‘Why would the cartels want to kill their customers with fentanyl?’” William said. “[Drug cartels] are looking at the money; they don’t care about death rates.”
The drug overdoses due to fentanyl are happening to those who have used drugs for a long time and those who are using illicit drugs for the first time.
“The reality is that most people who are taking fentanyl have no idea that is what they are purchasing,” William said. “These [drugs] aren’t made by someone in a lab. They have [no idea] the amount of fentanyl that is going into each pill.”
He added officers recently dealt with three individuals who thought they were buying cocaine but it was actually fentanyl. Two of those users died due to overdose.
“I can tell you we are finding fentanyl in a lot of people’s possession,” he said.
William had read an article by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office that dealt with deaths by substance abuse. He contacted the Coroner’s Office with a public records request concerning Glendale residents who died of substance abuse in the last 10 years. The person did not have to die in Glendale but had listed Glendale as their residence.
In 2018 there were 15 deaths, in 2019 there were 16, in 2020 there were 32 and in 2021 there were 29; however, William was told that number was not final. The office is backed up and Coroner’s Office workers feel that when they are able to record all the data the numbers will be higher.
“And we are saving a lot of lives because we have NARCAN,” he said. “The reality is without [NARCAN] those death rates would be much higher.”
NARCAN is the brand name of naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. It can quickly restore normal breathing to a person if their breathing has slowed or stopped because of an opioid overdose. It can be delivered as a nasal spray, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
NARCAN has been distributed to those in law enforcement and many school districts, including Glendale Unified School District, to have on hand in case of an overdose emergency.
In his outreach, William wants to educate parents on how important it is for them to speak with their children about drugs.
“If you have a child in middle school they know what drugs are,” he said. “By the time they are in high school they are either using or have friends or [know someone] who is using,” he said.
He advises parents to be aware of their student’s social media activity. In the past, to get drugs a person had to know someone who was selling drugs, then have someone meet with the dealer. Now people can find the drugs online and can Venmo the dealer who brings the drugs to them. Often students talk about their drugs on their phones using emoji. William said it is easy for parents to decipher this language.
“It doesn’t take a lot of work,” he said. “You go on Google and type in emoji for drugs,” he said. “When we find a body, the first thing we do is get a search warrant for the [victim’s] phone.”
He added most of the time officers can trace the drug transaction with the victim’s phone.
The best way to protect a child is to have open, honest and frank conversations with them about drugs, he added.
William also wants students to not be afraid to call 9-1-1 when their friends are in trouble, and to watch out for one another.
Previous drug concerns focused on addiction but with fentanyl it is important to get the word out about the danger of one-time use.
“The reality is it is not addiction we are trying to fight,” William said. “These kids are not long-term drug users. These are kids who are experimenting.”