Health & Medicine

No new fentanyl overdoses, but eight deaths confirmed; probe is top priority for DEA

Death is 'collateral damage' for fentanyl dealers

The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."
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The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."

Calling it a hopeful trend, Sacramento County public health officials announced Monday that local hospitals have reported no new overdoses related to the painkiller fentanyl in nearly a week. Also Monday, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office confirmed that eight of the region’s 10 overdose deaths over the past month were related to fentanyl.

“People are getting the message (about the dangers of fentanyl),” said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye. “The trend we are seeing is very hopeful, but people need to be careful and should not be taking pills that are not from a credible place like a pharmacy.”

Meanwhile, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is continuing its Sacramento-based investigation of illicit street sales of deadly fentanyl pills, which were masquerading as hydrocodone or Norco tablets. In total, fentanyl has been linked to 48 reported overdoses in Sacramento County.

“We are making progress,” said Casey Rettig, a DEA special agent based in San Francisco, who declined to offer more specifics. She said dozens of investigators, assisted by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, are working the case, which she called the regional DEA’s “No. 1 priority.”

Rettig urged people to contact the DEA’s fentanyl tip line – 530-722-7577 – if they have information that could help investigators. “We encourage anyone who thinks they have information related to this counterfeit prescription case to contact us,” she said. Those who call can remain anonymous.

Sacramento-area hospitals first began reporting fentanyl-related overdoses on March 23. Nine of the reported deaths were in Sacramento County and one was in Yolo County.

The painkiller, deemed up to 80 times more powerful than morphine, is typically dispensed in a liquid-based patch by hospitals for post-surgery pain relief. The illegal version, believed to be brought in from China and Mexico, is often powderized and pressed into counterfeit pills. Because it’s cheap to manufacture and promises a potent high, it’s become very attractive and profitable to organized drug traffickers. In recent years, fentanyl has been blamed for dozens of overdose deaths nationwide, in some cities becoming more common than heroin deaths.

The recent spree of deaths and overdoses in Sacramento County marked its first major appearance in Northern California.

Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said the rash of fentanyl-related overdoses are a first in Sacramento County. In the past, the county saw an occasional fentanyl-related death, “usually when the patches aren’t used as prescribed,” Gin said.

Of the eight fentanyl-related deaths confirmed Monday, Gin said seven were in Sacramento County and one in Yolo County. Her office is awaiting toxicology results on the remaining two deaths. She said a definitive cause of death in each case would be determined after further review.

Natasha Butler, mother of 28-year-old Jerome Butler, who died after taking a fentanyl-tainted Norco tablet, said Monday she wants answers. “People are still selling these pills (on the street). What arrests have been made? ... We have to keep the fire lit. If we don’t, someone else will die.”

Butler said her son’s funeral is April 20 at Prince of Peace Church, 7501 Franklin Blvd., in Sacramento, at 10:30 a.m. According to his mother, the unemployed father of three collapsed in a south Sacramento home and never regained consciousness; about five days later, on March 30, his family took him off life-support.

Public health officials and the DEA emphasized the danger in taking any prescription drugs not purchased from a regular pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription.

“We can only hope that the word is getting out there about how dangerous it is to take prescription drugs purchased on the street,” said the DEA’s Rettig.

Individuals who have pills they believe might be counterfeit are advised to drop them off at designated drug-disposal sites, including some pharmacies and law enforcement offices. Twice a year, the DEA sponsors a “National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day,” this year on Saturday, April 30, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where individuals can safely drop off unwanted prescription medications. For the nearest location, go to dea.gov and enter your ZIP code. Prescription drugs can also be mixed with coffee grounds, dirt or kitty litter, placed in sealable plastic bags and dropped in household garbage.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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