Local drug experts and enforcers are calling for change, as America’s drug epidemic has reportedly become the deadliest it has ever been, topping 100,000 deaths in one year for the first time, according to new federal data.
From April 2020 to April 2021, 100,306 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. — once again eclipsing the record that’d just been set that year with a 28.5% increase from 2020 and nearly double over the past five years — according to provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
President Joe Biden called it a “tragic milestone,” in a statement released by the White House, adding, “As we continue to make strides to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country.”
Opioids continue to be the driving cause of drug overdose deaths, with synthetic opioids, which consist primarily of fentanyl, accounting for nearly two-thirds, or 64%, of all drug overdose deaths, up 49% from the year before, per CDC data.
“It’s insane right now,” said Cary Quashen, the founder of Action Drug Rehabs and a nationally recognized expert in the field of addiction and drug abuse. “And that’s just from accidental overdoses. What about the (other deaths) from drug addiction? Driving under the influence, domestic violence, child abuse, murder, robberies, burglaries — what’s our real pandemic today? Take that 100,000 and add another few 100,000 to what drugs are causing.”
And it’s fentanyl that Quashen said has been a key contributor to the rising overdose death toll and drug addiction overall.
In fact, studies suggest that fentanyl overdoses have become the leading cause of death for ages 18-45 in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The road to fentanyl
At a time when there were just 30,000 overdoses a year, officials were trying to get a handle on the opioid crisis.
Soon, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would step in, creating a program where doctors could see “blacklisted” patients on a database, hindering patients from going doctor to doctor in search of more drugs.
“Doctors started saying to themselves, ‘This is crazy. We’re creating addicts.’ So bang, the supply got stopped — the demand went through the ceiling,” Quashen said.
That’s when fentanyl came into the picture, as it became cheaper and easier to acquire than natural opiates, and soon, pills began being cut with fentanyl.
A stronger and faster-acting drug than natural opiates, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, made the effects even more deadly.
“We use opiates as pain relievers,” said Detective Jeff Cacic of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team, or J-Team. “Fentanyl is, on average, 50 times stronger than heroin. Fentanyl is pretty scary because 0.02 milligrams of fentanyl is actually considered a lethal dose.”
Cacic compared it to a sugar packet at a diner, which typically is 1 gram, “so if you’ve cut that up into 50 pieces, that’s what a lethal amount is,” he said.
“Fentanyl is also so powerful that people that get Narcan-ed sometimes need three to four doses before we can bring them back,” Quashen added.
Since then, the problem has only gotten worse, with nearly all drugs sold on the internet — from Xanax to meth to cocaine to even marijuana — being cut with fentanyl, Quashen noted.
“So, almost every time you buy something on the internet, you’re playing Russian roulette… not with one bullet, but with two or three bullets,” he added. “And there’s such a demand right now that if people die, they die.”
COVID-19 exacerbates the problem
Since COVID-19 emerged, the opioid epidemic hasn’t gone away, but rather been swept under the rug — and been exacerbated — by the pandemic, Quashen said, noting that it only succeeded in pushing more people into deeper addictions.
“The only thing we talked about was COVID,” Quashen added. “People that were drinking started drinking more, people that were depressed were more depressed, people that were using drugs used more drugs, people that had anxiety had more anxiety.”
While he’s been sounding the alarm bells for years, Quashen said the time to act is now, as he considered addiction to be the “real pandemic,” rather than COVID-19.
“With COVID, we have a vaccine — there is no vaccine for this — so we better figure something out quick,” Quashen said.
What’s going on in the SCV?
Deputies with the J-Team respond to any medical emergency that appears to be an overdose to provide assistance on rehab services and education on available resources.
“Our job is not to prosecute, our goal is to eradicate the drug problem, so we provide rehab resources,” Cacic said. “That’s what we want to do to combat this because if we can get them rehabbed and off of this, then we’ve done our job.”
However, locally, there, too, has been a drastic increase in overdose deaths since 2017, according to Cacic.
From 2017 to 2018, seven local overdose deaths were reported. That number doubled the following year to 13, then jumped to 23, and from 2020 to 2021, there were 30 reported overdose deaths in the SCV. These figures are lower than the overall total, as deputies are not always notified of overdose deaths that occur in the hospital, Cacic noted.
Overdose deaths are most prevalent among ages 18-29 in the SCV, with 71 deaths reported from 2010 to 2021, while comparatively there have been 39 deaths in that time span for those ages 30-39.
In that time, the SCV also saw an increase in the presence of fentanyl, both in local possession and sales and in it passing through the area, Cacic said.
“It’s a problem, and it scares us because it is incredibly dangerous and incredibly deadly if even the smallest amount is ingested,” Cacic added.
“The thing that scares me the most today is all drugs are addictive today,” Quashen said. “All drug abuse and addiction starts innocently and could end up tragically… And if we don’t get a grip on this, this 100,000 (overdose death figure) is going to go way up.”
If you or a loved one has a problem with drugs or alcohol, local experts advise not turning a blind eye to it. There’s help out there, with a number of resources available to SCV residents and beyond. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. For more information on Action Drug Rehabs, call 800- 367-8336 or visit actiondrugrehab.com.