Overdose deaths related to fentanyl rose more than 1,000% between 2014 and 2018 in the state.
The recent overdose-related death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs has brought to light a troubling statistic for the state of California: while new opioid prescriptions and drug-related emergency room visits have dropped in the Golden State since 2014, overdose deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl have risen sharply over the same time period.
The East Bay Times examined the increase in a feature that showed that overdose deaths related to fentanyl rose more than 1,000% between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.
The blame for the increase was laid in part on what the Times called “phantom fentanyl”—pills made from fentanyl and cut to resemble prescription drugs such as the prescription painkiller oxycodone, which were also in part responsible for the death of rapper Mac Miller in 2018—as well as changes to the legal system which have reduced the number of offenders entering treatment programs.
The health department data referenced by the Times found that in 2014, 15 people died from fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles County. Four years later, the death toll had risen to 202—an increase of 1,247%. Statewide, fentanyl deaths also rose 614% during the four-year period, for a total of 1,649 fatalities.
The increase of counterfeit pharmaceuticals made with fentanyl was seen as the primary cause of the increase. Counterfeit pills can be made for $1 each, according to the Times, and sold for 20 times that amount on the black market. Both Skaggs and Mac Miller succumbed to overdoses caused by fentanyl and oxycodone in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
But the Times also cited the opinion of state law enforcement, which suggested that the passage of Proposition 47—which categorized non-violent offenses like drug or property crimes as misdemeanors, which are imposed without jail time—may have had an impact.
Removing those individuals from the two-pronged diversionary approach to drugs afforded by incarceration—the penalty of imprisonment and the opportunity to attend treatment programs in jail—has led to a “reduction in people attending treatment programs,” according to Jodi Miller, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Narcan Availability And Fentanyl Strips Could Make A Difference
The increased availability of the opioid-overdose reversal drug Narcan could make a difference in fatality statistics, but Department of Public Health officials also suggested that greater access to fentanyl test strips—which can detect the presence of the opioid in urine and in drugs themselves—could also have an impact. However, access to test strips is currently limited to harm reduction-oriented programs, according to the Times.
Los Angeles County has also launched a public education program on prescription pain medication abuse in English and Spanish as a means of combating death rates in an area which saw some of the most significant increases—404 overdose deaths, including half in 2018 alone—in overdose fatality rates.