Editorials

Overdoses reveal scary new chapter in opioid epidemic

At least 20 people in Sacramento County have overdosed on pills that health officials suspect contains the powerful opioid fentanyl. This undated photo provided by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Ohio shows lookalike fentanyl pills.
At least 20 people in Sacramento County have overdosed on pills that health officials suspect contains the powerful opioid fentanyl. This undated photo provided by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Ohio shows lookalike fentanyl pills. Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Medical Examiner’s Office

For anyone who still believes that addiction to opioid painkillers is no big deal in Sacramento, the events of the past several days should should serve as a serious wake-up call.

Since Thursday, at least 28 people have overdosed on a dangerous cocktail of street drugs in what the county’s top health officer, Dr. Olivia Kasirye, is calling a public health emergency.

Six have died so far. Some were found unresponsive in their homes. The rest have been hospitalized.

With blood test results still out, the details of the outbreak remain sketchy. Initially, health officials believed that the prescription painkiller Norco was involved and that tablets of it had been laced with another opioid, fentanyl. Some of those who overdosed said they bought what they believed were Norco tablets off the street, or got them from people they knew.

Now, though, health officials suspect the situation is much worse. Drug dealers, they say, might be putting fentanyl directly into capsules and selling them to addicts. Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and has been linked to overdoses in Southern California as well as Massachusetts and Vermont.

“People are buying them off the street, being told they’re one thing and they’re probably another,” Dr. Tim Albertson, a UC Davis toxicologist, told Sacramento Bee reporters Claudia Buck and Cynthia Hubert.

It’s yet another chapter in an epidemic that continues to ravage the nation – lately with synthetic opioids that are made in China or Mexico and funneled into the waiting arms of millions of addicts in United States.

The only way to change this dynamic is to help more Americans break their dependence on painkillers. On Tuesday, President Obama pushed again for this, announcing initiatives for more treatment for the twin demons of mental illness and substance abuse.

Speaking at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, he talked about $94 million that will go to community health centers to shore up treatment services for opioid addiction. Also, Medicaid patients will soon be able to get access to mental health services just as they do surgical benefits.

“What we have to recognize is in this global economy of ours that the most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs,” Obama said, “and the only way we reduce demand is if we’re providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem.”

Now is the time to redouble efforts to end this crisis. Otherwise, this rash of overdoses won’t be the last.

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