BY KAREN KUCHER
OCT. 20, 2021 5:02 PM PT
Sharp increase in overdose deaths in San Diego County fuel need to educate youth, parents on the dangers of fentanyl in counterfeit pills, county officials say
SAN DIEGO —
Alarmed by a surge in overdose deaths, San Diego County officials say they plan to work with schools and local agencies to focus a fentanyl awareness campaign on teens and young adults who may be considering buying pills on the street.
The board voted 5-0 on Tuesday to back a proposal, drafted by Supervisor Jim Desmond with the help of District Attorney Summer Stephan, that calls for development of a prevention campaign targeting high school and college-age students.
The move comes as drug overdoses are rising sharply in San Diego County and across the country.
There were 462 accidental overdoses involving fentanyl in 2020, up from 152 in 2019, county officials said. Through mid-July there were 413 fentanyl overdose deaths, and officials predict the number will top 700 by year’s end.
“As you know, we are in a crisis in terms of community members dying from fentanyl,” Stephan said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Law enforcement is doing what it can to track down suppliers of fentanyl-tainted drugs that result in fatal overdoses, including efforts by a special team that includes Drug Enforcement Agency agents, Stephan told the board. But she said more needs to be done to warn users of potential dangers of counterfeit drugs.
“The real solution is preventing this from happening in the first place,” Stephan said, adding that she hears weekly from parents who have lost children to fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and perhaps 100 times more potent than morphine. It can be fatal in small doses.
“Most don’t know that it is fentanyl they are consuming,” she said. “It is being laced in everything from Adderall to (oxycodone) to methamphetamine.”
Officials say that people too often buy drugs online or via social media platforms thinking they are legitimate pills that turn out to be fakes manufactured in Mexico or China with little quality control. A recent DEA analysis found that two out of every five fake pills seized and submitted to its lab contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
Just last month, federal drug officials issued a rare nationwide “public safety alert” to warn that the country was being flooded with the fake pills. In addition to issuing its warning, the DEA kicked off a campaign called “One pill can kill” that warns that pills purchased outside of a licensed pharmacy are “illegal, dangerous and potentially lethal.” Parents need to know more about the dangers facing their children, said Allen Johnston, who told the board he lost his 23-year-old daughter to a fentanyl overdose on New Year’s Day,
Johnston said his daughter took a pill she thought was Xanax but which contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. He said she had been prescribed the medication before but had run out.
“She had no idea” the pills she purchased contained fentanyl, he said in an interview after the meeting. “I think the majority of the kids buying these things have no idea. They are buying Vicodin and oxycodone and Percocet — and that’s what they think they are. They think they are getting the things they had been prescribed in the past.”
Johnston said he hopes that parents and their children will learn more about fake pills being mixed with fentanyl and have conversations about the dangers. “There are people out there that are selling fake pills and they can kill you,” he said. “That’s a conversation I never had a chance to have.”
The board vote directed the county’s chief administrative officer to work with the educational community, parent-teacher associations and student groups to develop the substance-use prevention campaign.
“The time to ramp up the effort is now,” Desmond said. “I’ve always felt if people knew better, they would do better.”