Thursday night at the Turlock Community Theatre saw community members, city officials and county health experts come together to discuss the deadly opioid drug fentanyl. Attendees were able to view local and national statistics on the opioid crisis, learn more on what fentanyl is, hear stories from families who lost loved ones to the drug, learn about resources available to the community and more.
“We have a deadly crisis in our community,” said Tony Vartan, Director of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. “Today’s event is to bring awareness about the ongoing crisis happening around the United States and here in Stanislaus County.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that comes in two forms. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is used for medical purposes with precise dosages and is administered to people with moderate to severe pain, especially after surgery and should typically only be taken under careful medical supervision. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is illegally sold without oversight or quality controls and varies in potency. The illicitly manufactured form is being mixed into other illegal drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine. It is also being pressed into counterfeit pills like Xanax, Oxy, Percocet and Adderall. Fentanyl is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
According to Vartan, three to four residents in Stanislaus County died per week due to overdose or opioid poisonings in 2021. So far in 2022, the pace is expected to exceed 2021 statistics, and not only that, but concern has reached an all-time high as 80 of this year’s deaths in the county so far have been linked to fentanyl-laced drugs.
“This kind of came upon us out nowhere,” said Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Hogan. “I remember there was a case back in 2017 where there was a guy travelling from Fresno to Sacramento through Stanislaus County, and he was arrested and he had a pound of fentanyl in his car, and that was a huge deal. We had never seen anything like that before. And I’m sitting here right now in 2022, and a pound of fentanyl is like nothing now. The way that fentanyl has displaced other drugs is shocking. In 2017, we had no cases involving fentanyl, it was heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. Now, it’s overwhelmingly fentanyl.”
Hogan and Vartan both stressed that accessibility to fentanyl has become easier than ever. But Hogan explained that efforts to slow down its distribution and related deaths are limited because of weak state legislation.
“On the county level, we’re trying to deal with it. We prosecute fentanyl dealers the best we can but right now, I can get in my car with 400 pounds of fentanyl and drive it up from here to Sacramento and get pulled over and all that fentanyl is found, and guess what? I am not eligible for state prison. It doesn’t matter because drug laws in California have been watered down so much. The reality of this system is that we’re trying to desperately catch up because there’s only so much we can do because unfortunately, the law doesn’t give us that much in terms of tools to be able to adequately punish people who are actively destroying our communities.”
With more lenient penalties for those distributing and selling fentanyl and other drugs in California, it has become more and more common for dealers to actively promote drugs on popular social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Instagram, where children and other young adults tend to spend most of their time online nowadays.
“Anyone with a smartphone basically has a drug dealer with them,” said Vartan. “One in four children have seen drugs promoted on social media.”
Vartan stressed the importance of collaboration between school districts and local health agencies, as opioid experimentation tends to start at a young age. For decades, high school and middle school years have been known to be times where children deal with increased peer pressure and tend to participate in recreational drug experimentation. Vartan says that those days need to be over.
“You can’t see, smell or taste it,” Vartan said. “You may think that you are consuming another substance, but in reality, it can have fentanyl. Only 2 milligrams of fentanyl can equal to about 10 to 15 grans of table salt, and that’s considered to be lethal.”
Importance was also stressed on the identification and treatment of opioid addiction in general. The families of Connor Hoffman and Jordan Ah You spoke about their deaths, each explaining that their sons had struggled with opioid addiction for years before accidentally consuming pills containing fentanyl.
Tabitha Sprague of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services explained that the age of those suffering from addiction in Stanislaus County has become younger and younger in recent years. She cites that increased prescribing of medications to children, isolation and stress from the COVID-19 pandemic are contributors to the concerning statistics. As experimentation leads to addiction, it could only be a matter of time until an individual takes a fake opioid filled with fentanyl.
“What we’ve said before and what we continue to say is to not take any drugs that are not directly supplied to you by a physician or a licensed pharmacist,” said Vartan.
Considering that fentanyl is being found in the majority of drug-related deaths in the county, Substance Use Education & Prevention Services Coordinator Jennifer Marsh gave a lesson on how to administer Narcan alongside members of the Pitman High PHAST (Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco) Club. Marsh explained that signs to look for when coming across an individual who may have overdosed or is experiencing a fentanyl poisoning include dilated pupils, blue lips or fingers and distinct gurgling sounds. She added that there are no negative impacts to administering Narcan to an individual, so it is better to be safe than sorry.
To address those who may be experiencing addiction, resources and information can be found at www.StanRx.net.
A recording of the town hall discussion will also be made available to community members at a later date.
“It is important for us to continue to talk about this,” Vartan said. “[We need] to continue to create the awareness where we can actually educate our community and actually get in front of this and save lives.”