by Photo courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will discuss illicit fentanyl as a public health crisis on Tuesday as the number of people has died exponentially at the hands of the drug. 

F​​entanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.

Overdose deaths caused by fentanyl reached historic levels across the nation with an estimated 80,000 overdose deaths in 2021 along, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

A county board document signed by county Supervisors Jim Desmond, Terra Lawson-Remer, and District Attorney Summer Stephan cites CDC data showing the drug to be the number one killer of people between the ages of 18 and 45, exceeding the number of deaths caused by accidents, COVID-19, heart disease, and gun violence within this age group. 

Desmond and Stephan held a virtual forum earlier this month featuring panelists, medical experts state, and federal prosecutors to warn county residents of the insidious nature of fentanyl. A recording of the meeting is available on YouTube

The county declared the week of June 2-10 as "Talk to Your Kids About Fentanyl Week" due to its severity. 

The grip fentanyl has in the region worsened as instances of smuggling increased over the past several years. Data from the United States Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations shows that 66 percent of all powder fentanyl seized along the Southwest Border of Mexico in 2021 occurred in San Diego County. 

The San Diego County Medical Examiner reported 33 fentanyl-caused deaths in 2016, and the provisional number of fentanyl-caused deaths for 2021 exceeds 800, an increase of over 2300 percent in only five years. According to the board document, preliminary numbers indicate accidental fentanyl overdose deaths in 2022 will likely exceed those in 2021. 

“The number of fentanyl overdose deaths is far greater than some public health emergencies that have been previously declared. These figures ignore the hundreds of individuals who overdose on fentanyl and survive but who suffer long-term physical and mental damage as a result,” reads the board document. 

Although the drug is dubbed the number one cause of death among people ages 18 through 45 years old, county medical examiner data shows that 12 children under the age of 18 succumbed to an accidental fentanyl overdose. The youngest victim is 13 years old. 

“Many more children, some as young as four months of age, have ingested fentanyl carelessly left within reach by parents or caregivers. These children have overdosed but survived due to the quick and informed action of first responders. Poisonings from fentanyl are greatly impacting our already strained emergency departments and, in doing so, further harming our community at large,” the board document reads. 

Experts say dealers have taken to social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Instagram to market what they claim to be legitimate medications such as Oxycotin, Percocet, Adderall, and Xanax. 

“​​These pills are almost always counterfeit, containing none of the actual medication, but possessing often fatal doses of fentanyl, methamphetamine, or other harmful drugs,” reads the board document. 

Illicit fentanyl in San Diego County takes the form of counterfeit pills and white powder. According to the county, users will often intentionally ingest fentanyl powder, but in several cases in San Diego where the user consumed what they believed to be methamphetamine or cocaine, but which was either fentanyl or a combination of fentanyl and the intended drug. 

Upon approval from the board of Supervisors, the county will take further steps to bring awareness to fentanyl and its risks to residents. The county’s Chief Administrative officer would be directed to work with the Health and Human Services director to develop recommendations and implementation to address the issue of illicit fentanyl as a public health crisis. 

The board of supervisors will revisit the topic on August 16. 

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