The Silent Epidemic: The Growing Threat of Fentanyl in Southern California

March 14, 2021 Updated: March 15, 2021

When Gail Smith lost her son to a drug overdose in 2016, she joined an Orange County club of which nobody wants to be a member.

“My son Kenny died of an accidental overdose of heroin mixed with fentanyl,” Smith told The Epoch Times. “We were told that there was enough fentanyl to kill 10 elephants.”

Smith’s story is familiar to an increasing number of families and friends throughout Southern California who have lost a loved one to an accidental overdose of fentanyl—one of the most powerful opiates ever to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than the effects of morphine, according to the FDA; and local law enforcement agencies are confiscating illegal shipments of the drug in record numbers.

Over the past five years, seizures of the drug by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) have skyrocketed. In 2015, the OCSD reported zero fentanyl seizures; in 2019, the department confiscated a total of 169 pounds—enough to create 38 million lethal doses.

Officials have introduced legislation to form a Southern California task force to tackle the region’s growing problem. But in the meantime, people are becoming addicted to the drug, and rolling the dice with their lives each time they take a dose.

Smith now runs a sober living home named after her son. She described fentanyl as “highly addictive,” adding, “Those using it recreationally need to know: They have the potential of dying at any given moment.”

Fentanyl began as a synthetic opiate originally developed and prescribed for the pain management of cancer patients according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). But because of the drug’s powerful painkilling properties and inexpensive cost to produce, it was soon diverted into the illegal drug trade.

According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs—including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly)—because it takes so little to produce a high, making it a cheaper option. Two milligrams of the drug are potentially lethal; 5,000 milligrams fit into a teaspoon.

Fighting the Danger

First responders say they are coming into contact with the drug’s effects in increasing numbers. A firefighter from Southern California, who has had multiple run-ins with the drug’s dangers, told The Epoch Times that fentanyl users are jeopardizing their lives every time they take it.

“Some users get high, but with fentanyl, it seems like most don’t realize how close to death they came,” said the firefighter, who didn’t wish to be identified for security reasons.

The firefighter pointed out that inconsistencies in the drug’s production add to the problem.

“Users seem to be surprised with the strength or inconsistency of the potency,” he said. “I’ve seen an early-30-year-old found dead after ingesting fentanyl because no one checked on them. I’ve also seen a partier who took some of the [drug] that a friend offered them and then went unconscious. It took multiple rounds of Narcan [an emergency overdose treatment] to bring them back.”

The firefighter, who has been working in Southern California for almost a decade, affirmed that there is an increasing number of fentanyl-related overdoses in the region. He said many users were likely unaware that the drug they were using was laced with the opiate to create larger profit margins for dealers working the streets.

People who unknowingly take drugs laced with fentanyl can be more likely to overdose because their bodies may not be used to the stronger opioid, according to the NIDA.

“Many users have severe respiratory arrest,” the firefighter said. “Fentanyl is a very powerful downer, and it is fast acting. It is also cheaper—so someone may buy even more of it.”

Epoch Times Photo
A firefighter displays Narcan, a lifesaving medicine used to treat drug overdoses, in Southern California, on Feb, 26, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
drugs
Fentanyl crystals and pills. (Courtesy of the DEA)
fentanyl pills the agency seized
This photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Phoenix Division shows some of the 30,000 fentanyl pills the agency seized in one of its bigger busts, in Tempe, Ariz. (Drug Enforcement Administration via AP)

An Expert Weighs In

Scott H. Silverman is CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego-based treatment program for clients with addiction issues. He’s been treating addicts for almost 40 years—ever since overcoming his own addiction to prescription and illegal drugs.

Silverman, author of “The Opioid Epidemic,” said the opiate problem affects people of all ages, and often starts with prescription pills.

“Even most heroin users we work with started with a pain medication … prescribed by a doctor to them,” he said. “Opiates are not easy to get off of. It’s a painful process. And for someone that suffers from pain, taking away their painkiller is not an easy process, by any means.”

Ultimately, taking opiates only makes things worse, he added. “Because opiates like fentanyl are so addictive, what will happen is, in less than a week or 10 days, is that you will get hooked on the stuff,” he said. Then, “it’s like driving a car with an 8-cylinder engine, but only with 3 of the cylinders” working.

Silverman told The Epoch Times that once someone is addicted, they have to seek help from a professional who can provide the necessary medications to beat the problem. Often, someone else takes the first step.

“When people are in the midst of their addiction, they are not seeking treatment. It’s the families and loved ones that make the phone call to me,” he said.

“No one has come up with an easy process” to get people off opiates, he said. “When you try to get off it, you’ll go through withdrawals. There is a level of dependency that gets created in people, and that creates challenges.

“When you are under the influence of something, you are not feeling anything anymore. The problem over time is that doesn’t work, but they have not found anything to replace opiates for pain yet.”

He also said things are getting worse. “Now that drugs are getting legalized, they are getting stronger. Illegally, people don’t know what they are buying off these streets right now. You can even overdose on fentanyl by it being airborne, which has even happened to law enforcement officers.”

Making things even more frightening is how cheap and easy it is to make fentanyl, Silverman said.

“Hypothetically to make fentanyl, you and I could take $500, go to the dark web, order the ingredients, and dilute them into pills. For that $500, we could make enough fentanyl pills to sell it for more than $10 million,” he said.

“When you use bitcoin to purchase it, there’s no tracing it. Buyers could order it, and USPS could potentially ship it right to your door, and no one would know.”

He noted that young people may be taking the drug without even knowing it.

“Right now, younger generations are having what’s called ‘Skittle parties,’ where everyone brings a drug and puts it into a bowl while music is playing. When the music stops, everyone grabs something out of that bowl,” Silverman said.

“I was working with a family who lost their college-age son to that. He took something out of a bowl that had fentanyl in it and died.

“Make an informed decision and do not get on opiates. I know people in their 60s and 70s that can’t get off of it.”

Epoch Times Photo
Pictures of people who died from a drug overdose line a fence at the Laguna Niguel Skate Park in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2020. (Chris Karr/The Epoch Times)

Crossing Borders

Most of the fentanyl reaching Orange County is manufactured illegally in Mexico, according to the firefighter, local law enforcement, and the DEA. Drug cartels often use promises of money and electronics to hire young people to move it through border crossings into Southern California.

Once across the border, the drugs are then distributed to smaller dealers, some operating out of local business fronts to mask their illegal narcotics trade.

But the fentanyl problem transcends borders. The drug also presents a danger to the public in Canada—where most of the fentanyl comes from China, according to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.

On Feb. 25, he told the Standing Committee on Canada-China Relations that China is the main source of the country’s opiate crisis, which killed more than 17,000 citizens from January 2016 to June 2020. Fentanyl was involved in 75 percent of those deaths, he said.

“It’s no secret that China is one of the main source countries of fentanyl, as well as the precursors of chemicals used to make this highly potent and deadly synthetic opioid,” Blair said.

“Illegal fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs are being mixed in and contaminating other drugs. … This continues to be a major driving factor in the overdose crisis that has tragically cut so many lives short in Canada.”

Documentary filmmaker Spencer Folmar told The Epoch Times that he thinks the northeastern part of the United States is being hit hardest by the fentanyl epidemic.

“Kids can buy lethal heroin for under $10,” said Folmar. “It is easier, and sometimes cheaper, than buying a pack of cigarettes or booze—but these drugs can kill a first-time user with one use.”

Folmar, who recently spent time in central Pennsylvania while making his project “Shooting Heroin,” said the drug is being interlaced into heroin to maximize dealer profits.

“The people and stories I have heard of victims to the opioid epidemic are not typical drug users. They are honor-roll students, working parents, and high school and middle school children,” he said.

“This epidemic doesn’t discriminate, and it is killing and has killed far more than the current pandemic, but no one talks about it.”

The Response

As Folmar documents the opiate epidemic to bring light to the situation, law enforcement and government agencies across the country are strengthening their counter-narcotic response.

On Feb. 17 in Santa Ana, the OCSD conducted a traffic stop shortly after noon. What started as a routine vehicle code violation ended in one of the largest seizures of fentanyl in Southern California history: two kilograms of the drug in powdered form, along with 11,000 counterfeit pills.

The deputy who searched the Ford pick-up truck discovered an estimated 1 million lethal doses of the drug in a backpack in the passenger area of the vehicle. After a preliminary investigation, the OCSD determined the narcotics were likely smuggled into the country from Mexico.

Epoch Times Photo
Two kilograms of fentanyl powder seized by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in Orange County, Calif., on Feb. 17, 2021. (Courtesy of the OCSD)

An earlier bust in the county, however, didn’t go as smoothly. On Dec. 15, 2020, officers from the city of Orange Police Department pulled over a vehicle for an alleged traffic violation. The driver and passenger were under investigation for narcotics involvement.

After being ordered out of the vehicle in the parking lot of a small shopping center, the suspects tore open a large plastic bag full of white powder—fentanyl—which then spread over the area, eventually landing on the officers’ clothing.

The small shopping area then turned into a HAZMAT scene, requiring the response of the city of Orange and Anaheim Fire departments to intervene. While police evacuated shoppers from the parking area, six officers and the two suspects were taken to local hospitals on precautionary measures.

In Riverside County—where, in the past four years, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by more than 800 percent—District Attorney Mike Hestrin has begun charging alleged drug dealers with murder.

“There is no safe way to use or to sell fentanyl. Simply put, it is lethal,” Hestrin said at a Feb. 22 press conference. “Those who sell fentanyl should know that and, if they choose to sell it anyway and someone dies, the dealer should be prosecuted for murder.”

Since Feb. 4, the Riverside County Gang Impact Team—which is supervised by the DA’s Bureau of Investigation—has seized more than 10 kilos of fentanyl, enough to make around 5 million potentially deadly doses.

Officials Step Up

The fentanyl crisis has caught the attention of members of the California state government.

On Feb. 12, state Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) launched Senate Bill 350 (SB 350) to combat drug-related deaths. The bill would allow a manufacturer of various controlled substances, including fentanyl, to be charged with murder if they previously had been found guilty of illegally distributing the drugs.

SB 350 is designed to address implied malice for drug fatalities by considering them in a similar fashion to driving under the influence crimes. The bill would similarly require the court to issue an advisory to individuals convicted of selling or distributing controlled substances. The proposed advisory would provide a person convicted of these crimes with a warning that their actions could result in another person’s death and lead to a homicide charge.

“It’s past time to hold drug dealers accountable before more parents are forced to bury their children. … This pandemic has led to a devastating rise in fentanyl-induced deaths across California,” Melendez said on her website.

“Law enforcement needs the tools to go after drug dealers who prey on kids. Alexandra’s law provides a valuable first step in getting this fentanyl epidemic under control and most importantly—saving lives.”

The new law is named after Alexandra Capelouto, a 20-year-old college student who died of drug poisoning while visiting her family at home during a school break.

“As a mother of five children, I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child to drug poisoning,” Melendez said.

In December 2020, state Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) introduced Senate Bill 75 (SB 75) to create a special Southern California task force to counter the region’s fentanyl crisis.

The bill represents a second attempt to create a special regional task force, after an earlier bill was halted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes has supported both bills.

“Fentanyl continues to pose a substantial risk to our communities,” he said when the new bill launched. “The current trend of rising fentanyl-related deaths is unacceptable. SB-75 will put us on the right path to reversing this trend by holding drug traffickers accountable.”

Members of the group would come from the California Department of Justice, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. Task force members would report their findings and recommendations to the state Legislature and Attorney General.

On the national level, the DEA has launched Operation Engage, a comprehensive law enforcement and prevention support initiative aimed specifically at opiates.

Participating field divisions will focus on reducing drug use, abuse, and overdose deaths, while targeting the top threat identified by local DEA authorities. The division will simultaneously continue to combat drug trafficking, violence, and crime.

The operation was launched on Feb. 24 and aims to expand nationwide by 2022.

“We will help empower individuals, families, and communities to do their part to help reduce the demand for drugs and get help for those who need it,” DEA Acting Administrator D. Christopher Evans said in a press release.

“Working alongside our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, as well as specialists in prevention, treatment, and education, we are raising awareness to make our communities safer.”

A Mother’s Final Plea

As fentanyl deaths are on the rise and hidden within the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, people under the age of 40 continue to be the demographic hit hardest by the life-taking opiate.

Overdose deaths in California grew by nearly 27 percent between June 2019 and June 2020, according to research provided by California Health Policy Strategies.

Smith, the Orange County mother whose son overdosed on the drug, implored anyone fighting opioid addiction to get help as soon as possible.

“As a mother, I want to tell anyone struggling with substance use disorder: Please, do not wait. Get help today. ‘One more time’ may be your last,” she pleaded.

“You were created for something great. God loves you and has an amazing plan for your life. Please don’t let your family and friends see the local police come to their front doors to tell them you are gone.”

For those struggling with addiction issues, please contact the Orange County narcotics helpline website at Orangecountyna.org/ocwp/