SAN JOSE, Calif. — Law enforcement seized a staggering 28,765 pounds of fentanyl in California this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Friday — enough to kill the entire population of North America twice.
Seizures of the deadly opioid in California increased by nearly sixfold in 2022, illustrating the drug’s alarming rise throughout the state as everyone from lawmakers to police agencies to local schools ramp up efforts to crack down.
“The opioid crisis has touched every part of California, and our nation, this year,” Newsom said in a news release, announcing the seizures that were made by local and state law enforcement agencies with the assistance of the California National Guard.
“As we mourn the many lives lost, California is working harder than ever to fight this crisis and protect people from these dangerous drugs to ensure our communities are kept safe in the first place.”
Bay Area prosecutors say that the statewide surge in illicit fentanyl sales is also playing out locally. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed over 200 fentanyl-related cases from January to October 2022. That’s up considerably from 120 cases they filed last year, according to Edward Liang, who supervises the Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking Team of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
“When we talk about what the human toll means … it’s about making sure that there aren’t more empty seats at the family table for the holidays,” Liang told the Bay Area News Group on Friday.
Law enforcement officials say they are seizing fentanyl throughout the state and especially in Los Angeles and San Diego, where the drugs are often smuggled in from Mexico.
Liang, who supervises Santa Clara County’s Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking Team, says that Interstate 5 has become a fentanyl trafficking route into the Bay Area.
The powerful synthetic opioid is 50 times more potent than heroin and increasingly laced into a variety of illicit substances such as counterfeit painkillers and stimulants, which teens can buy easily online. Oftentimes people who overdose on fentanyl think they are consuming those less dangerous drugs.
As fentanyl sales continue to surge, the California Department of Public Health is helping colleges and universities order the opioid-reversing nasal spray Narcan to comply with a new law mandating that state universities and community colleges maintain a supply of the lifesaving drug. The bill’s author, state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Bakersfield, says that she hopes the mandate will save lives as the fentanyl crisis continues to worsen in California.
“What I hear from parents is that there is fear … fear of having their child go to school, knowing that they could have access to counterfeit pills that are laced with fentanyl, triggering an overdose,” Hurtado said.
Fentanyl is also showing up on high school campuses. School officials at San Jose’s Overfelt and Oak Grove high schools used Narcan to save students who had overdosed on fentanyl in October.
On Thursday, Santa Clara County prosecutors charged a 23-year-old San Jose man nicknamed “Madman” with felony drug sales to minors after he allegedly sold fentanyl-laced pills to Los Gatos High students near campus. Authorities said they began their investigation when a teenage girl who was one of his customers overdosed in the bathroom during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
High schools, unlike public community colleges and state universities, are not required to maintain a stock of Narcan. However, state lawmakers have proposed a similar mandate as part of a raft of new legislation focused on the deadly drug.
A Bay Area News Group survey published Dec. 18 of more than 40 school districts in the region found that 60% of responding districts have not yet trained their staffs on how to recognize signs of fentanyl poisoning and do not have access to Narcan. An earlier report by the news organization published in October found that one fifth of deaths among Californians ages 15-24 were directly attributable to fentanyl in 2021, with a total more than six times the number it killed a mere three years earlier.
“There’s still so much out there,” Liang said of fentanyl. “Everybody’s trying to do their part.”