In an ongoing public campaign to raise awareness of the potentially deadly consequences of fentanyl use, Assemblyman James Ramos and San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus gathered with others Friday, Jan. 28, to promote two pieces of legislation authored by Ramos.
Joining Ramos and Dicus were Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, Redlands Police Chief Chris Catren, Dr. Jonathan D. Avalos from the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, and two parents whose children were casualties of what they call a “fentanyl epidemic” that is destroying thousands of lives nationwide.
“Fentanyl is a deadly crisis ravaging our young people, adults, and our state,” Ramos said. “Unfortunately, there is no one answer, no one cure. We must battle this crisis on many fronts.”
Quoting statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics, Ramos said 100,000 people died of fentanyl-related overdoses from April 2020 to April 2021 — the first time drug-related deaths have reached six figures in a 12-month period.
Overdose response team
Dicus said his department created an overdose response team in February 2021 consisting of two rotating teams of narcotics investigators, on call 24-7, to respond to suspected fentanyl-related deaths.
Since February 2021, the team has responded to 106 involving 108 victims of fentanyl, 97 of which were fatal. Four were juveniles and the average age of the victims was 32, Dicus said.
“They come from all backgrounds, all walks of life — teens, people who are addicted to pain medication and lifelong drug users,” Dicus said. In 2021, he said, the department’s narcotics unit seized 769 pounds of fentanyl with an estimated wholesale value of more than $26 million. Most of the cheap synthetic opiate is coming from Mexico.
Friday’s news conference was another in a series of public appearances aimed at drawing state and national attention to the deadly fentanyl epidemic in a push for tougher laws for dealers who sell fentanyl-laced drugs to unsuspecting individuals.
Earlier this month, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin and Sheriff Chad Bianco hosted a news conference at the District Attorney’s Office, pushing for the state Legislature to take a stronger position on the issue and embrace tougher laws against dealers, making them culpable for murder if someone they sell the drug to dies. State lawmakers already have rejected several efforts to pass such laws.
Ramos said his Assembly Bill 1627 would create pilot programs to train law enforcement and public health agencies in the use of naloxone, or Narcan, an over-the-counter nasal spray used to revive unconscious people who have overdosed on drugs. It would also provide state grant funding for law enforcement agencies to create their own overdose response teams.
Assembly Bill 1628 would require social media platforms to create policies prohibiting the use of their sites to illegally distribute controlled substances. They also would be required to submit those policies to the state Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s time we hold them accountable through their (social media) platforms,” Ramos said.
‘Statistics are tragic’
Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, said San Bernardino County faced a 656% increase in fentanyl-related deaths — from 30 to 227 — since 2018. In Riverside County, she said there were 227 fatal fentanyl overdoses in 2020 alone.
“These statistics are tragic, to say the least,” Ochoa Bogh said. “I’m here as a mother myself, and in the name of all those victims, to help bring attention to the senseless deaths occurring throughout the state.”
She said the Legislature “must take a stand” so those whose loved ones died from fentanyl poisoning know their voices have been heard and their tragedies validated.
For all involved in the push to raise awareness and adopt tougher laws, a key issue is eliminating the stigma that victims were drug addicts who should have known better.
“We must no longer tolerate the loss of innocent lives or accept the misconceptions formulated to distract us from the real issue by blaming victims as simple drug addicts,” Ochoa Bogh said.
Scourge is statewide
Redlands Polcie Chief Chris Catren said there were hardly any fentanyl-related deaths in San Bernardino County a decade ago, but now hundreds of individuals are dying every year from fentanyl and other synthetic opiods. He said the county’s fentanyl death rate has climbed by nearly 500% in recent years.
“This is not an issue isolated to San Bernardino County. Police chiefs across the state are facing the same problem — a flood of fentanyl leaving death and debris in its wake,” Catren said.
Steve Filson, a retired San Bernardino police sergeant and a member of the nonprofit Victims of Illicit Drugs, or VOID, said his 29-year-old daughter, Jessica, and her boyfriend, Nicholas Castillo, were among four people who died from the same batch of fentanyl in January 2020. They thought they were using cocaine, but it was laced with fentanyl, Filson said. No criminal charges were ever filed in the case.
“Victims were deceived into taking something they believed it to be but it wasn’t. And being deceived they were poisoned, and being poisoned they were murdered,” Filson said.
Jaime Puerta’s 16-year-old son, Daniel Joseph Puerta Johnson, suffered a similar fate. He took half of what he thought was an oxycodone pill in April 2020 and died four days later in a Los Angeles hospital. The half pill Daniel ingested was pure fentanyl, enough to kill seven people.
Puerta, of Santa Clarita, said that from April 2019 to April 2020, there were 93,300 drug-related deaths in the United Sates, 70% of them from fentanyl. And from April 2020 to April 2021, there were 100,304 drug-related deaths, 64% due to fentanyl.
“This is a problem that each year just continues to double itself,” Puerta said. “Every day you have have approximately 300 people die from fentanyl poisoning, and everybody seems to have their head in the sand. Education and awareness is key.”