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Fentanyl to Blame for Overdose Surge in California

As the omicron variant complicates the recovery of California from the pandemic, another public health disaster is simultaneously ruining lives, the overdose epidemic.The synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is incredibly potent has been the most to blame for these tragic numbers. Counterfeit Fentanyl is widely available thanks to labs in China, and the substance is also mixed in with benzodiazepines that are sold illegally, as well as street drugs like heroin and cocaine. Many people who have died from a fentanyl overdose did not realize that they were imbibing the substance.

Recent Research Findings on Overdoses

UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy recently issued a jaw-dropping analysis that indicated that approximately 1,500 individuals who were homeless have died on the streets of Los Angeles during the pandemic. Forty percent of those deaths have been confirmed to be a result of  a drug overdose, but experts think that this total is well under the typical estimate for these types of cases.

How California Stacks Up Nationally

California ranks eighth in the country for having an increase in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that after a year-long period ending in April 2021, 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses occurred in the United States, which includes over 10,000 deaths in California. That’s an all-time high and a 29% rise over the previous year. More than two-thirds of the fatalities were caused by fentanyl.

How COVID Has Impacted Illicit Drug Use

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently told reporters that the coronavirus epidemic has triggered increased drug use. Unfortunately, community networks were compelled to scale down preventive treatment, and rehabilitation programs were greatly limited due to pandemic closures and social isolation rules.

When is Fentanyl Prescribed?

Doctors prescribe fentanyl to patients with extreme pain, such as cancer patients in late stages of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It’s cheap, yet lethal, especially when combined with other drugs or alcohol.

The California Peace Coalition’s Stance on Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The California Peace Coalition, which is a group of parents whose children are addicted to or have died from illicit drugs, held a “die-in” protest. The gathering wasin response to the current drug crisis, and it was held in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Some 712 San Francisco citizens died during the California drug epidemic in 2020, roughly three times the number of individuals who died from COVID-19.

The demonstrators were calling upon the state and San Francisco to shut down “open-air” drug markets, prosecute dealers, and place their children in mandatory treatment facilities.Harm reduction strategies like safe consumption places and widespread use of Narcan haven’t been successful in solving the issue, says the group.

Doris Matsui, Sacramento’s Democrat Representative, has long advocated for greater access to addiction treatment and telemedicine.

Government Investment into the Solution

We are making progress, although the results are hard to see thus far. Earlier this year, Joe Biden signed off The American Recovery and Reinvestment  Act, which dedicated $75 billion specifically to address helping those struggling with a substance use disorder. As part of this bill, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Programs Administration (SAMHSA) received over $4 billion from the in Spring 2021, with $30 million of it going toward harm reduction services such as syringe disposal and interventions.

Also, the  governmenthas recently lifted restrictions to make it easier for medical professionals to administer opiate addiction medications.  The widespread availability of Narcan, which is a nasal spray that reverses opiate overdoses, has saved countless lives.

More Reasons for Hope

There is more medication available than ever to help the opioid user escape their addiction. Drugs like Suboxone reduce withdrawal discomfort and associated cravings are newly sober individuals.

The closure of many rehabilitation programs during COVID-19 did have a silver lining.  Many facilities adopted remote treatment technology (ie ZOOM meetings) to allow those who are in need of medication and/or counseling for a substance use disorder.

The main thing that everyone should understand is that help is available, it is often free, and there is a well-worn path to recovery from addiction.  If you have become addicted to drugs, you can get help today. That SAMHSA website is a great starting point, and has a nationwide database of treatment providers, so you can find something in your area.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman has been fighting against addiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic and the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient drug program in San Diego.


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