U.S. Attorney Issues Public Safety Alert: Fentanyl Crisis Raging in San Diego
Kelly Thornton (619) 546-9726
NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – July 31, 2019
SAN DIEGO – In the wake of four fentanyl overdose deaths in San Diego County in 24 hours last week, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer issued a public safety alert today for drug users to be aware that a lethal strain of fentanyl designed to look like oxycodone is being sold on the streets to unwitting buyers and the price may be the buyer’s life.
Brewer also warned that the fentanyl crisis is raging here as border seizures, prosecutions and overdoses are on pace to hit all-time highs in San Diego County at the end of 2019.
“That heroin, that meth, that coke, that oxy you think you are taking? Well, it just might have fentanyl in it, and it just might be the last thing you ever do,” Brewer said. “I cannot be more clear than this: Fentanyl may be the costliest drug you ever do, because you may pay with your life, and you won’t even know you took it.”
Fentanyl-related deaths are rapidly climbing to unprecedented levels. The Medical Examiner’s Office reports 50 confirmed fentanyl-related overdose deaths so far this year, plus another 28 suspected but yet-to-be confirmed cases with four months remaining in the year. Should this trend continue for the remainder of 2019, the death toll could potentially reach 130, which would amount to a 47 percent increase over last year’s total of 90 deaths, and a staggering 787 percent hike over five years ago when there were 15. The victims are overwhelmingly male, and the average age is 36, with the youngest 18 and the oldest 66.
“Just when we think it can’t get any worse, the latest numbers prove us wrong,” Brewer said. “I am alarmed by the dramatic surge in trafficking activity and deaths, particularly of young people. San Diego is the fentanyl gateway to the rest of the country, and we are working hard to close that gate with interdiction, prosecution and education.”
Federal authorities, led by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations, have confiscated an estimated 533 kilograms – or 1,175 pounds – of illicit fentanyl at and near the international border so far this year. That’s more than half a ton. Just four years ago, authorities seized a fraction of that - only 30 kilograms. In addition, there has been a record number of seizures involving counterfeit blue pills labeled M-30 that contain fentanyl.
“Your dealer, BFF, lover, or classmate may become your murderer and the medical examiner may become your personal physician,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Karen Flowers. “Life is precious. Don’t gamble yours away for a quick high that sends you home from the party in a body bag.”
“Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is committed to pursuing transnational criminal organizations who continue to profit from smuggling and distributing this deadly opioid that threatens our communities,” said Timothy J. Tubbs, Acting Special Agent in Charge for HSI in San Diego. “HSI will continue to collaborate with our local, state, federal, and international law enforcement partners to protect our communities from dangerous drugs.”
“Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic drug that poses a deadly risk for people who encounter this opiate,” said CBP Director of Field Operations in San Diego, Pete Flores. “CBP officers take special safety precautions when handling such substances and taking them off the street is another example of how CBP protects our communities against all threats.”
The DEA is working in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies in San Diego to ensure the most effective overdose death investigations and prosecutions. DEA is actively investigating fatal overdose deaths that occur in the San Diego County and has established an Overdose Response Group, which consists law enforcement from DEA, SDPD, Homeland Security Investigations, California Department of Health Care Services and FBI. The goal of this specialized group is to identify the distributors of these deadly drugs that are bringing heartbreak to our communities.
Fentanyl is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin and so dangerous that in its purest form, even a tiny amount touching the skin can be deadly. According to law enforcement reports, the price of fentanyl in 2019 – whether in powder form and pill form – is declining, meaning that both forms are readily available in our community.
Users are also ordering up fentanyl from the so-called “Dark Web” like they would order something from Amazon. The drug is being purchased online and sent directly to customers by mail or express delivery service in the U.S.
Brewer urged users who opt to disregard his dire warning to seek Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose and save lives. Narcan is available by prescription and can be purchased at many pharmacies without a prescription.
The law enforcement community has taken this problem very seriously and developed a multi-level strategy that involves a number of approaches from different disciplines.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and District Attorney’s Office are working closely with the Medical Examiner’s Office, and its law enforcement partners, on overdose cases involving fentanyl to trace the origin of these deadly substances and build possible murder cases against suppliers. So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has charged about a dozen alleged dealers.
In November, U.S. Attorney Brewer, DEA, HIDTA and the San Diego Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force are sponsoring a Western States Opioid Summit that will bring together hundreds of professionals from multiple disciplines to provide training and best practices to combat the fentanyl scourge. Surgeon General Jerome Adams will address the group.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and its partners created a local Fentanyl Working Group in early 2017, which meets quarterly. This is a multi-dimensional group that includes local, state and federal investigative agencies, toxicologists, the Medical Examiner’s Office, DEA Lab Chemists, first responders, plus local, county and federal prosecutors. This collaboration is a significant step in working together to promote streamlined investigations.
The Fentanyl Working Group also held the sixth Fentanyl Forum on July 18, 2019, where hundreds of local and federal law enforcement officers learned about the dangers of encountering fentanyl in the field; the local smuggling trends from Mexico and China to the U.S.; parcel interdiction cases, prosecution of overdose cases in state and federal courts; and prosecution collaboration with our office and that of the District Attorney.
The Fentanyl Working Group is also committed to arming the community and first responders with the important information they need to stay safe.
Members of the public who encounter suspicious counterfeit blue pills labeled M-30 are urged to dispose of them safely by referring to resources listed at https://www.sandiegorxabusetaskforce.org/community-resources
People who need help with mental health including substance use disorder, suicide prevention, medication needs, and more can call the San Diego County Crisis line at 888-724-7240. It’s open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.