After more than 18 pounds of fentanyl—enough to cause the drug overdose deaths of every resident in Orange County—was seized in a single raid last week, Sheriff Don Barnes warned of the dangers of “this extremely potent drug.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department says this amount of fentanyl could have produced more than four million lethal doses.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever, is similar to morphine, but is 80 to 100 times more potent. As little as two to three milligrams of the drug can kill a user.
“The threat this extremely potent drug poses to our community is increasing exponentially, not subsiding,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a media release.
The seized fentanyl has a street value of more than $1.25 million, according to the release issued by the sheriff’s department on Oct. 17.
Deputies arrested 60-year-old Rudolph Garcia on charges of drug possession with intent to sell and of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was being held in custody in lieu of $2 million bail.
Five pounds of heroin and a half-pound of meth were also confiscated during the drug bust in north Orange County on Oct. 16. About $71,000 in cash, and a loaded semi-automatic handgun were seized.
The drug bust yielded nearly half as much volume of fentanyl as the entire amount seized last year, said authorities. The volume of illicit fentanyl sold on the street locally has risen dramatically over the last two years. Police confiscated less than one pound of fentanyl in 2016, 44 pounds in 2018 and more than double that amount—at least 100 pounds—so far this year.
Statewide fentanyl deaths increased 614 percent from 104 in 2014 to 743 in 2018, according to the California Department of Health. Orange County fentanyl deaths jumped by 564 percent from 14 in 2014 to 93 in 2018.
Fentanyl is considered the number one drug leading to opioid overdose deaths in the United States, according to a report (pdf) issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year.
Among an estimated 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017, about 28,500 of them were related to fentanyl, and the CDC warned that even those numbers are probably underreported.
The sheriff’s department has worked with Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) to author legislation aimed at preventing the proliferation of fentanyl on California streets.
Bates has authored several bills, all of which have been rejected in the state Legislature. They include Senate Bill 161 in March, SB 1103 last year, SB 176 in 2017, and SB 1323 in 2016.
“I hope the shocking increase in fentanyl seizures in Orange County will serve as a wake-up call to my legislative colleagues to finally confront the dangers of fentanyl,” Bates said in a statement. “The state has a responsibility to deter those who seek to profit from the addiction of Californians.”
Vowing to keep fighting against the national opioid abuse epidemic, Bates said she will continue to work with the sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies to champion solutions in the state legislature.
The sheriff urged the state to enact laws that impose tougher penalties for fentanyl trafficking.
“Our Sacramento legislators can no longer ignore the direct and legitimate threat of fentanyl,” Barnes said. “Drug trafficking organizations are taking advantage of gaps in the law. Until we categorically include enhancements for trafficking fentanyl and make its penalties similar to other illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, we are enticing and encouraging drug traffickers to increase the supply of fentanyl into California at the expense of children and families in our community.”
At the national level, Trump has repeatedly called out China as a main source of illicit fentanyl and has put economic pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to help stem the flow of the lethal drug into the U.S. and other countries.
China was listed as the largest source of illicit fentanyl in a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report released less than a year ago.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), illegally manufactured fentanyl is produced primarily in China and Mexico, particularly the Sinaloa cartel, and is smuggled across the southern U.S. border or comes into the country by mail.
Heroin and cocaine are often laced with fentanyl, according to the DEA, which states, “Fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency, or be disguised as highly potent heroin. Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl — which often results in overdose deaths. Clandestinely-produced fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico.”
Multiple deaths have also been linked to fake Xanax (alprazolam) and Vicodin (hydrocodone-acetaminophen) pills that have been found to contain fentanyl.
Over the last year, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers not to buy prescription drugs from unverified online pharmacies, many of which have been illegally selling potentially dangerous unapproved versions of opioids and other drugs.
“Illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids — primarily sourced from China and Mexico—are now the most lethal category of opioids used in the United States,” the DEA states (pdf). “Traffickers—wittingly or unwittingly—are increasingly selling fentanyl to users without mixing it with any other controlled substances and are also increasingly selling fentanyl in the form of counterfeit prescription pills.”
The DEA announced on Oct. 23 that it has proposed new regulations during the opioid crisis to improve the agency’s ability to oversee the production of dangerous drugs and “further limit excess quantities of medications that might be vulnerable to diversion for illicit distribution and use.”