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Deaths Surge From Fentanyl-Laced Street Drugs In San Diego County

An ambulance is parked outside of the emergency room at UC San Diego's Medica...

Photo by Susan Murphy

Above: An ambulance is parked outside of the emergency room at UC San Diego's Medical Center in Hillcrest, June 5, 2018.

Street drugs laced with fentanyl are becoming a deadly problem among drug users in San Diego County. The white powder substance is more potent than heroin and can be lethal even in small doses.

“That causes people to die much more commonly than they would normally if they knew what they were using,” said Dr. Richard Clark, director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at UC San Diego Health System.

“There’s no doubt that the number of deaths have gone up,” Clark said. “There’s no doubt that the number of ER visits have gone up, and I would say the vast majority of problems associated with those is fentanyl in the heroin.”

Reported deaths from fentanyl in California nearly tripled between 2016 and 2017, according to the California Department of Public Health.

San Diego County’s fentanyl overdose mortality rate in 2017 was two times higher than the California rate. Nearly 275 county deaths were attributed to opioid overdoses, with more than half involving fentanyl.

Experts suspect dealers are tainting drugs with fentanyl because it produces a better high, or because it's more cost-effective.

Clark has seen the dangerous trend firsthand at UC San Diego Medical Center’s emergency room in Hillcrest, where he estimates a 30 percent rise in fentanyl-related cases.

“Most of the people that I see now, that are having trouble with heroin, are certain that it’s laced with fentanyl,” Clark said. “And they feel that they’re using the same dose that they’ve always used of heroin. And now all of the sudden they’re having more trouble with it and having problems with toxicity.”

He said the white powder substance is 10 to 100 times more potent than heroin and can cause respiratory arrest.

“Fentanyl is not absorbed very well in the intestinal tract, but when you put massive amounts in, it will be, and can make you stop breathing,” Clark explained.

Growing concerns have prompted the California Public Health Department to provide test strips at needle exchange locations across the state, to allow people to check their drugs for fentanyl. The test works by placing a strip in a small amount of water with diluted drug residue for 15 seconds. Results are available in 5 minutes.

The test strips were offered at the Family Health Centers of San Diego syringe exchange program, but a company spokesperson said the organization is currently out of supply.

In addition to testing their drugs, users should also carry the opioid overdose reversal medication, naloxone, Clark said.

“That’s a little bit like an insurance policy, but if you are using by yourself and pass out, it’s not going to do you any good,” he warned.

Clark said the best prevention is not using drugs at all.

San Diego County’s fentanyl overdose mortality rate in 2017 was two times higher than the California rate, according to state health officials. Nearly 275 deaths in San Diego County were attributed to opioid overdoses, with more than half involving fentanyl.

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