‘They deserve to stay safe and alive’: Fentanyl risk, even in marijuana, has county leaders concerned
Based on the county coroner’s data from May 2021, fatal overdoses from fentanyl nearly quadrupled from five in 2019 to 19 in 2020. According to the findings, fentanyl has been found in a variety of other illicit drugs, from methamphetamine and heroin to cocaine and Xanax — even in cannabis.
Drug addiction experts predicted dire results for those struggling with substances through the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent data and overdose deaths in Santa Cruz County have confirmed those fears.
The most concerning, experts say, is fentanyl — a powerful, illegal, cheaply produced synthetic opioid that produces heroin-like effects and is very easy to overdose on. According to recently released data, California is one of 16 states that has seen an increase of 50% or greater in fatal fentanyl overdoses, and locally those numbers are even higher.
Based on the county coroner’s data from May 2021, fatal overdoses from fentanyl nearly quadrupled from five in 2019 to 19 in 2020. According to their findings, fentanyl has been found in a variety of other illicit drugs, from methamphetamine and heroin to cocaine and Xanax. Recent discoveries have even been made in cannabis.
“All of the combinations together makes for a perfect storm,” said registered nurse Kristen O’Connor, who works as the addiction program manager for Santa Cruz Community Health.
Denise Elerick, founder of the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County, believes the statistics will only get more dire in correlation with the pandemic’s ramifications. She has recommended fentanyl test strips (available through County Health Services) as a good tool for helping avoid a potential overdose — but even those strips cannot tell you the exact amount of fentanyl present.
“We were very nervous about the impact of the pandemic and the fire evacuations and other traumatic experiences with regard to substance use disorder,” she said. “We’re very grateful that we didn’t have an increase in overdoses … but Santa Cruz County has had one of the highest overdose rates in the state of California for several years now.”
We’re very grateful that we didn’t have an increase in overdoses … but Santa Cruz County has had one of the highest overdose rates in the state of California for several years now.
Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills confirmed that the issue of fentanyl overdoses in particular has been on the rise since 2014, with more calls for overdoses to emergency services.
“I’m waiting for data back from the sheriff’s office regarding how many were actually fentanyl overdose deaths,” he said. “They could have also been methamphetamine, heroin or other things.”
While she doesn’t know the exact numbers for fentanyl-specific overdoses, O’Connor said she is incredibly concerned by what she’s seen across the county. In the second half of 2020, she said the county coroner reported twice the number of fatal overdoses in the area, likely aligning with the pandemic’s ramifications.
“People have lost that connection with others in recovery, and it has been destabilizing to be unable to access care if you can’t go in person,” she said. “For anyone who is feeling isolated or despair, you’re not alone, and we have a lot of resources in our county.”
Elerick has had frank conversations with community members, ensuring they know that even if they aren’t using opioids, they should be cautious of any fentanyl present in stimulants or other substances. Her team encourages people to carry naloxone or Narcan — available for free through their organization and other community partners — in case they need to move quickly to counteract an overdose.
“I know there have been thousands of doses of Narcan distributed, because we see the discarded ones in various places … so you wonder how many deaths there would have been if not for the Narcan distribution,” she said.
In 2020 alone, Elerick notes that the county documented 73 overdose reversals — and the hope is to keep saving people and keep up the distribution countywide.
“It’s a time when people really need to use together and not alone — this really does impact people from all walks of life,” she said, making note of the unexpected deaths of Prince and Tom Petty due to overdoses in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Mills said he feels for the families dealing with substance abuse or seeing a loved one dealing with addiction, and notes that even a small amount of fentanyl can cause a huge amount of damage.
“It’s really critical to work with health care or service providers to provide a space to get them rehabilitated — the problem is that there aren’t that many spaces available,” Mills said.
O’Connor further recommends creating an overdose safety plan — like having a fire extinguisher or an earthquake kit at home.
“If you’re going to be using and you’re not ready for treatment, we want to meet you where you’re at and we want to keep you safe,” she said.
Further, as Elerick noted, addiction can’t just be turned off.
“Substance use is part of our culture — good, bad, indifferent,” she said. “It’s going to occur whether we try to criminalize or demonize or mandate abstinence. It’s just going to drive it further down into the shadows of society … people will use drugs, and they deserve to stay safe and alive.”
For additional assistance for you or a loved one, call the Never Use Alone hotline at 800-484-3731.