Deaths from prescription drugs, fentanyl continue to rise in San Diego
But by the time she noticed the signs — the slipping grades, the distance from the family — her teenage son was already in the throes of addiction.
Jerry, the same kid who used to scold his grandparents for smoking and frown on drinking, died at age 24 of a heroin overdose.
“I never thought this would happen to my family,” Nolan said.
Ten years later, the epidemic of prescription drug and opioid abuse is as serious as ever. While doctors are writing fewer prescriptions, users are turning to the illicit markets for relief — many encountering an even more potent form of opioid, fentanyl.
Last year, 273 people in the county died from prescription drug overdose — 20 more than the year before — with the vast majority of deaths attributed to opioid medication, according to the county’s annual Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force report card, released Friday.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, claimed 84 lives — more than double the amount in 2016.
The skyrocketing fentanyl deaths illustrates how the battle against opioid abuse has shifted even further from prescription pads to the streets.
Seizing upon the high demand for painkillers, drug trafficking organizations are selling what appear to be blue oxycodone pills that are actually filled with fentanyl manufactured illegally in China.
The demand for fentanyl is evident at the ports of entry along the California-Mexico border, which recorded 542 kilograms of the drug seized in fiscal 2017 — a 143 percent increase from the past year, according to Customs and Border Patrol data.
The popularity of heroin over the past decade has risen for the same reason, as prescription opioid-addicted users seek a cheaper, more accessible high, as Jerry did before his death.
Last fiscal year, CBP seized 933 kilograms of heroin at the California ports of entry, up from 591 kilograms the year before. However, heroin overdose deaths appear to be gradually subsiding since a high of 105 in 2014, with 86 such deaths recorded last year.
“Prescription pill abuse is an equal opportunity killer,” warned county Supervisor Kristin Gaspar at a news conference Friday, “and can affect anyone, crossing socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender and age.”
Still, data suggests some demographics are at higher risk.
Men are nearly twice as likely to die from prescription drug overdose death than women, according to 2017 data. Males ages 25-34 were at highest risk, followed by ages 55-64. Women faced higher risk in the 55-64 age category.
Also, whites made up a disproportionate amount of prescription overdose deaths last year.
“It’s important to remember that the numbers presented here today are real people,” Gaspar said. “These are real people like Jerry and Sandy, that represents a devastating loss to family, friends and the entire community.”
The epidemic can’t be fought on a singular front, Gaspar noted.
Case in point: the two dozen or so Realtors who stood behind her in solidarity at the news conference, which was in front of the Kearny Mesa offices of the Greater San Diego Association of REALTORS.
Why Realtors? Their open houses not only give potential buyers a tour of homes for sale, but also provide drug users an opportunity to rifle through bathroom cabinets and steal prescription medication.
“With countless numbers of expired, unwanted and unused prescription drugs sitting in medicine cabinets in homes across the country, this is a major problem,” said Steven Fraioli, president of the association.
He, along with Gaspar, law enforcement and other community leaders, urged San Diegans to get rid of unused prescription drugs to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
Today, San Diegans will be able to drop off unwanted prescription drugs at 44 locations across the county as part of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day — no questions asked.
Realtors have carved out a unique role in the fight against drug abuse by encouraging homeowners to secure their prescriptions as they would their valuables before open houses. Safe Homes Coalition, a group that advocates for safe keeping of drugs in homes, has provided thousands of bags for the task.
In April, the Realtors plan to partner with the coalition and others to walk door to door to educate homeowners about securing their medication. Among the materials handed out will be anonymous and pre-addressed, paid envelopes that will let homeowners send unused drugs to a DEA-approved disposal facility, where the medication will be weighed and incinerated.
“There’s no reason someone should die of medication sitting unused in a medicine cabinet,” said Scott Silverman, an addiction crisis coach and executive director/CEO of Safe Homes Coalition.
National Prescription Drug Take Back Day
What: Drop off unwanted, expired medication safely and anonymously
Where: Find the location nearest you at takebackday.dea.gov.
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today