Santa Clarita’s front line against fentanyl

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station Capt. Justin Diez, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs join a panel of experts during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Olivia Flores misses the hugs from her baby brother the most.  

Her tearful share to about 150 or so parents and other concerned residents gathered Thursday for the Fentanyl Town Hall demonstrated the purpose behind the gathering at the Canyon Country Community Center. 

Members of the community were worried and tired of losing loved ones to a deadly crisis that’s increasingly hurting communities like Santa Clarita throughout the country.  

Flores’ 18-year-old brother took a single ecstasy pill laced with fentanyl, she said, and then became one of the more than 30 people in Santa Clarita who died in 2022 from an overdose of the drug. 

Boxes of Narcan are distributed to hundreds of attendees after the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

As she spoke, she clutched a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal that her brother had given her — tearfully saying that now, when she wants to hug her brother, she can only hug the stuffed bear that reminds her of him. 

The town hall, hosted by The Signal and featuring speakers from Los Angeles County, the city of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, the William S. Hart Union High School District and multiple community partners, aimed to give parents tools and information to fight the fentanyl crisis. Those tools included 150 doses of the opioid reversal nasal spray, naloxone, along with a demonstration on how to use it. 

“The Narcan is by no means an answer to the fentanyl crisis, either. We’re really just distributing the Narcan as a tool,” said Signal Publisher Richard Budman, who kicked off the town hall by introducing the panelists and sharing some eye-opening statistics on just how deadly of an epidemic fentanyl has created. “It’s a tool that we hope you’ll never have to use, but it’s a tool just like a spare tire on a car — it’s there in case of an emergency.” 

Budman said he was spurred to act by a series of incidents that started Dec. 6 at Bouquet Canyon Park. 

“Last month in a 24-hour period, there were six overdoses and one fatality from fentanyl, right here in Santa Clarita,” he said, noting that, nationally, there are 10,000 overdoses from the drug every month — which amounts to 200 every day. “Fentanyl has become a nationwide problem, but it has become especially prevalent here in Santa Clarita.” 

From left, Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Pat Sprengel, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Captains Justin Diez and Brandon Dean meet before the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

Fifth District county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the SCV, spoke next and addressed the importance of agencies working together in forums like Thursday’s, which is the only way the situation will improve 

“The risk is real,” Barger said, adding she personally knows two people who’ve lost a child to fentanyl. 

“This is not an overdose,” she said, referring to how little it takes to kill someone, “this is a poisoning death.”  

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger speaks during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

In Los Angeles County, the numbers have grown exponentially, she said, with 462 deaths in 2019 related to overdoses, and more than 1,500 in 2021. She added that number was certain to grow again once the totals for 2022 were released. 

“We can only expect these numbers to continue to grow,” Barger added, “unless the local, county, state and federal — because it’s coming across the borders right now — partners address this with the urgency and collaboration that it requires.” 

Narcotics Bureau Capt. Brandon Dean later pointed out that as little as 0.02 milligrams is enough to make a fatal dose. 

Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs emphasized one of the scariest aspects of the drug with a statistic from the Drug Enforcement Administration — its agents estimate that 25% of all street drugs now are laced with the opiate, which is estimated to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. 

City of Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs speaks during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

“As a city and through collaboration with our Sheriff’s Department, local school districts and other organizations, we hope to empower,” Gibbs said, noting parents play a key role in the fight. “We want you to have an open and honest conversation with yourselves and your families and your loved ones. We must start replacing negative messages and peer pressure with encouragement to stay strong, and help our youths surround themselves with people who will create a new culture free from the influences of these outside substances.” 

With his opening comments Thursday, Hart District Superintendent Mike Kuhlman shared what he called a confession: When he first heard about fentanyl, he didn’t assume it was a problem that would impact SCV families the way it has.  

“And then I did my own research, and I saw these types of videos,” he said, referring to a video montage that kicked off the event, which showed dozens of boys, girls, men and women, ranging in age from their teens to their late-30s — the population statistically most affected by fentanyl — who had died from the effects of the deadly opiate. 

William S. Hart Union High School District Superintendent Mike Kuhlman talks about concerns of fentanyl in the public schools during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

“And I realized that those families are the same as my family. And they’re the same as your family. And it caused me to go and have those difficult conversations with my boys about how dangerous and unique this situation is,” he added. 

After opening remarks, questions from the community were answered by members of a panel of experts, which also included: Dean, who heads the LASD’s Narcotics Bureau and the county’s Overdose Response Task Force; SCV Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez; Pat Sprengel, L.A. County Fire Department battalion chief; Drs. Eric El-Tobgy and Siddarth Puri from L.A. County Public Health, who led the Narcan demonstration; Jon Hatami, a deputy district attorney for L.A. County; Dr. Darrin Privett, emergency room director for Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital; and Cary Quashen, founder of Action Drug Rehab, an ardent advocate in the city’s Heroin Kills campaign, which addressed a similar crisis the city faced more than 11 years ago, and is now an outspoken advocate for helping the community thwart the deadly impacts of fentanyl. 

“Everybody in this country knows right now that fentanyl is bad. True. We don’t need to teach people that fentanyl is bad. We need to teach kids that all drugs are bad,” Quashen said. “All drugs are deadly today. What’s going on right now is, people that are overdosing … are overdosing on Ecstasy, that’s cut with fentanyl. They’re overdosing on Percocets — that are cut with fentanyl. Or oxy, that’s cut with fentanyl. So if we don’t teach kids today that all drugs are deadly, we’re giving them the wrong message.” 

All narcotics can be fatal, Dean pointed out, but the tiny amount of fentanyl that can kill is “what’s changing the game,” adding six out of 10 pills found on the street with the drug in them contain a deadly dose, an amount he compared to a grain of sand. 

“What scares me the most is the amount of time that you have to reverse an overdose — or I should say the lack of time,” Diez said, during the panel discussion, and referencing the naloxone demonstration from Public Health. “If you don’t get that Narcan within several minutes of that overdose, unfortunately, you’re going to have a death.  

“That’s very scary. That’s very powerful,” he added. “Before you know it … you don’t have time to freeze. You don’t have time to think. You have to take action.” 

During his demonstration of the drug, Puri explained how Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, essentially counteracts an opioid overdose, which, he added, is not addictive and contains no harmful side effects. 

Dr. Saddarth Puri, Assoicate Medical Director Los Angeles County demonstrates the use of Narcan nasal spray for the audience as a lifesaving response to an opioid overdose during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Essentially, what naloxone does is, there’s a receptor in the brain that all those drugs, all the opioids like fentanyl, stick on — Narcan will kick that off and basically what it’ll do is reverse an overdose to allow a person to breathe,” Puri said. “But it has to happen in the first three to five minutes, because that’s when we start to see brain death.” 

Each packet given out contains two doses, he said, which can be administered into each nostril, with the second dose to be tried if the first one doesn’t work.  

Puri said if someone is experiencing an overdose, they’ll have small pupils, be unable to breathe, they might have a very faint heart rate, be cold and clammy and have their nails starting to turn blue. (The demonstration of the drug can be seen at the 1-hour, 16-minute in a video on The Signal’s Facebook page of the event.) 

The event also offered information for parents, with Diez noting the fentanyl conversation can start with kids as young as fifth and sixth grade, and encouraged parents to be wary of everything their children are doing, even what emojis they use frequently on their phones. 

The forum also included questions from parents in the audience, who asked about what’s being done to address the problem, what more can be done and what should they be doing. 

As a parent himself, Privett, who sees how the community’s struggle with the drug often ends up in the rooms of the SCV’s local hospital, shared an oft-cited statistic that revealed the average parent spends about 10 minutes a day talking to their teenager.  

A panel of experts discuss the dangers and suggest solutions during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

He shared anecdotes from his own family and hammered home the point that parents can’t be more concerned with trusting their child or being their child’s best friend when it comes to a problem with consequences this severe. They need to be their children’s guardians first. 

“Spend quality time with your children,” Privett said, noting opioid overdoses have killed more people aged 18 to 45 than COVID-19, car accidents, suicide or even cancer, in recent years, “and that’s probably the biggest advice that I can give to parents.” 

From a criminal justice standpoint, Hatami said he was there to speak for those in the community who no longer have a voice or who are frustrated and want to see more done to fight the problem through the courts. 

Attendees watch a video in the darkened auditorium, displaying some of the faces of deaths caused by fentanyl during the Fentanyl Town Hall Meeting held at the Canyon Country Community Center in Canyon Country on Thursday, 011223. Dan Watson/The Signal

“This is not a war on drugs,” Hatami said. “This is a war, and a battle, to save lives. … These children are not overdosing, they’re being poisoned, they’re being tricked. I’m here to be the voice of those children and those teenagers in this community who are being preyed upon by drug dealers throughout this valley, throughout this county.” 

For a complete video of The Signal’s Fentanyl Town Hall, visit The Signal’s Facebook page at https://youtu.be/kk92NKReIO8

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