Drug overdoses fueled by increased use of fentanyl killed more than 100,000 Americans in 2021.
Local drug overdose deaths have increased by 40 percent in the last two years, from 32 in 2020 to 53 in 2021, according to data from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. Fentanyl overdose deaths alone have increased by 377 percent, jumping from nine in 2020 to 34 in 2021.
It is unclear how many overdose deaths have occurred in 2022 as toxicology reports take up to three months to get back, according to the sheriff’s office.
“We can safely say that we’re seeing this now more than ever,” Sheriff William Honsal told the Outpost. “Our drug task force has seen this spike over the last three years and we are seeing unprecedented numbers of fentanyl in our community. …The opioid crisis is just that, a crisis, and it is directly tied to fentanyl.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States – 10,065 of which occurred in California – during a 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5 percent from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before, according to the most recent data available from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose by 55.6 percent during the same time period and appear to be the primary driver of increasing overdose deaths across the nation.
The Humboldt County Drug Task Force seized nearly 14 pounds of fentanyl in 2021 in comparison to only three grams the year before. The Drug Task Force seized 10.6 pounds of opioid prescription pills in 2021, up from approximately 9.6 pounds in 2020. However, heroin seizures dropped dramatically from 48.55 pounds in 2020 to 12.39 pounds in 2021.
“We’ve seen a jump from heroin abuse to fentanyl abuse,” Honsal said, noting that the drug has been found in heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. “People aren’t using heroin anymore, like black tar heroin, they’re just using fentanyl. As we know, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and it is 100 times more potent than morphine. Even just a small amount is fatal and we are extremely concerned because it is so cheap and readily available. It’s just a very, very scary time right now in regards to the drug epidemic.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in 2017 in response to widespread opioid abuse and unveiled a five-point strategy to combat the opioid crisis – including improved access to prevention and recovery support services, increased availability of overdose-reversing drugs like naloxone, commonly referred to by the brand name Narcan, and advanced research on addiction – but data suggests overdose deaths have only increased.
“Overall addiction also went up during the pandemic,” Honsal said. “The stress of dealing with a pandemic and what was just going on in society, I think – whether it’s alcohol or drugs – that people became more addicted during that time. But what we see now with a highly volatile substance like fentanyl, which was very hard to get three or four years ago and only came in the form of medical-grade patches, it’s now readily available.”
Increasing awareness is key, Honsal said.
“Number one, do not take any pill that’s not prescribed to you. I know it sounds like a ‘say no to drugs’ type of situation, but you really cannot trust anything that you do not buy at a pharmacy,” he said. “The pill could look exactly like something you would find at the pharmacy, but unless you know for sure, you have absolutely no idea what could be in there. It could literally take one pill to kill you.”
The Humboldt County Drug Task Force has increased its focus on fentanyl sales and has taken “an aggressive stance in going after dealers,” Honsal added.
“We’re also working with the District Attorney’s Office to get anyone who is convicted of trafficking or selling fentanyl to be provided with what’s called a Watson advisement,” he said. “A Watson advisement is particularly given to people who have received chronic DUI convictions and it basically says if you carry on with this behavior that you could kill someone. …Now we can safely say that they’ve been advised that they can be charged with second-degree murder. It is the same thing with fentanyl. If a dealer ends up killing someone then we can charge them with second-degree murder.”
Jasmine Guerra, executive director of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction (HACHR), argued that increased criminalization of opioids and the people who use them “has historically backfired.”
“More criminalization means more deaths, more restricted options for people being criminalized, more disrupted families and more risky patterns on drug trends,” Guerra wrote in an email to the Outpost. “The issue has been played out by the War on Drugs since the early 1970s. The real issue is that people are facing homelessness, food insecurity, and barriers to health care at unprecedented rates in the nation and locally. …This isn’t even touching the surface of the rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Humboldt, which we know to be linked to chaotic patterns of substance use.”
Guerra preferred to refer to the opioid crisis as the “overdose crisis” because it shifts the focus “on people’s lives that have been lost unnecessarily and moves away from blaming people who use drugs for the increased rates of overdose.” Following that line of thinking, she said the answer to ending the overdose crisis begins with changing the language around it.
“Stigma reduction helps to prevent overdose because it breaks down a barrier that someone otherwise would have faced when considering seeking help,” she said. “Next, overdose prevention sites, like the pilot project that recently opened on the East Coast, is another measure that will significantly reduce overdoses, if it is led by community-based organizations. Lastly, and most importantly, our country needs to decriminalize and provide a safe supply of substances.”
Raena West, Substance Use Disorder (SUD) administrator and senior program manager for SUD outpatient and treatment programs for the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Behavioral Health division, said increased access to medication-assisted treatment is “the best way to combat the opioid crisis.”
“The county opted into the Drug Medi-Cal Organized Delivery System which makes it possible for people on Medi-Cal to access residential treatment facilities and medication-assisted treatment with Aegis Treatment Center,” she said. “We have also increased our outpatient substance use disorder services to include individual services, case management and field services.”
West noted that fentanyl overdose deaths were likely exacerbated by the pandemic as more individuals were using alone, thus increasing their chance of overdosing.
While perspectives may differ on how to end the opioid crisis, the individuals interviewed for this story agreed that access to Narcan is critical.
“We’ve had a ton of overdoses that have been saved through the use of Narcan,” Honsal said. “The data is anecdotal because there are different organizations that hand out Narcan… but it happens every day that someone is given a dose of naloxone to save them from an overdose.”
Both HACHR and Humboldt County DHHS provide free Narcan and training. More information can be found here.