The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl that is fueling the unprecedented rise in drug-related deaths across California and other states is now targeting America's youth.
The drug said to be 50 times more potent than heroin, has taken its toll on places like San Francisco's Tenderloin district but also in upscale neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
Users tend to be unaware that they have even taken the drug, forcing schools to stock up on medication to reverse the effects of overdoses. Experts recommend using test strips to detect if the pills have been laced with fentanyl.
"We are not trying to scare you," said Chelsea Shover to the Mercury News. "But we are trying to tell you what's happening now, and it is different than what was happening a few years ago."
Shover is an assistant professor of epidemiology and health services research at UCLA and has co-authored a 2020 study on fentanyl's spread to the West Coast.
Fentanyl's stranglehold on California is starkly depicted by the state's spike in death records.
In 2020, 4,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses — more than double the previous year while trafficking through the Mexico border remains unchecked, allowing the cheap drug to make a home in local drug markets.
Last year was the first time California's death rate from all drug overdoses surpassed that of lung cancer, ranking just below hypertensive heart disease. The increase was almost entirely due to fentanyl which recorded 5,722 deaths, according to the California Department of Vital Statistics.
For perspective, in 2021, an estimated 4,258 people died in auto accidents in California, and there were 2,548 homicides.
From 2018 to 2021, the opioid death rate among those 15 to 19 years old quadrupled. For those between the ages of 20 to 24, the rate surged to nearly seven times. The spikes occurred even as the overall drug use rate among teens remained stable, according to experts.
Before the epidemic, the total number of yearly deaths for Californians ages 15 to 24 hovered around 3,000. Since 2020, that number has increased to 4,000, with fentanyl accounting for more than 750 deaths in each of the prior two years.
Shover believes that number will continue to increase "until we actually respond."
Schools across Santa Clara were given Narcan, an over-the-counter nasal spray that prevents fatal fentanyl overdoses. Administrators were also provided training; nonetheless, the Superintendent of Schools worries that the students are already consuming "study drugs" like Adderall and common painkillers, which they purchase from unlicensed vendors on the internet.
Besides the teens, adults between 30 and 34 reached a record high in California with 33 deaths per 100,000 in 2021 — the highest of any age group.
San Francisco remains ground zero with nearly double the opioid death rate of the second most impacted of the Bay Area, Sonoma.
In Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, the rate more than doubled from 2018 to 2021 as fentanyl flooded the market. In Alameda, it more than tripled, and in Marin, it nearly quintupled.
Edward Liang of the Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking Team of the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office says Interstate 5 became a fentanyl trafficking route for Mexican cartels. They use raw materials trafficked over the border to produce the fentanyl pills that are now in the Bay Area.
Liang says the cost associated with making fentanyl are low compared to other drugs, and because of its potency, dealers earn more off less.
Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a fentanyl task force which has led to the seizure of more than 4 million pills and nearly 900 pounds of fentanyl powder since April 2021.
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