Fatal opioid overdoses in Monterey County have more than tripled this year compared to 2018. Many are blaming counterfeit street drugs laced with fentanyl that have started showing up in the community.
Part One: Fentanyl And Fake Drugs
More than 100 community members gathered recently at a town hall in Seaside to talk about the dramatic increase in deaths from opioid overdoses.
Last year, nine people died from an opioid overdose in Monterey County. So far this year, that number has reached 33.
Teenager Perla Velasco Perez died from an opioid overdose in October when she took what police believe was a pill laced with fentanyl.
Her mother Carolina was at the town hall.
She was so distraught, her cousin Kayla Velasco spoke for her.
“Perla was a free-spirited, artistic child who had everything going for her. Her goal was to be here also with her family. She has three siblings who she left behind,” said Velasco.
Velasco said the family is still trying to process what happened.
“There is a lot of guilt. It's still hard. My point is this was a 16-year-old child. It could be anybody else's kid,” Velasco said.
The town hall included a training session on how to use naloxone or Narcan, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. Community members lined up to get free bottles of the nasal spray.
So why are we seeing a sudden spike in overdoses in our community?
Dr. Casey Grover is medical director of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula’s emergency department. He says it’s the latest wave of the opioid epidemic.
“Wave number one is doctors prescribing painkillers driven by bad information from the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical industry told us these drugs are great, they're not addictive, which turned out not to not be true. And the problem is, and I personally as a doctor am guilty of this, is at the end of the first wave, we started realizing we're over prescribing and we told patients, you have a problem, I'm going to cut you off,” said Grover.
“And people went into withdrawal. They feel horrible. So they found heroin,” Grover said.
And the third wave.
“Wave three, which is what we're currently in, which is the fentanyl wave, which is somebody realized that fentanyl is highly potent and therefore easy to smuggle, much easier to produce. And so now it's flooding the market,” Grover said.
Street drugs, including pills, cocaine and even marijuana, are now being laced with fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine. A few grains of fentanyl can kill you.
Grover is part of the Monterey County Prescribe Safe Initiative, which was created in 2013.
The group managed to bring opioid overdose deaths in Monterey County to the third lowest in the state.
But now, according to the California Department of Public Health, the numbers are among the highest ever recorded.
At the Seaside Police Department, Police Chief Abdul Pridgen says for the last three years, his officers have been carrying Narcan and have reversed a number of overdoses.
“So we're trying to educate our community on what to look for, what the pills might mimic, because they look very much like the authentic pills,” said Pridgen.
Now, with the sudden spike in deaths, and knowing there is demand for these counterfeit street drugs, he’s having to give this advice to drug takers.
“And if they're going to try them, it should be with friends or in a location where the door isn’t locked. And take a small amount and test that before you try,” said Pridgen.
The fentanyl wave of the opioid crisis is seeing no sign of slowing in our community.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Francisco office says their division, which includes Monterey County, has seen seizures of counterfeit pharmaceuticals increase fivefold this year compared to last.
They’ve also seized 44 pounds of fentanyl so far this year.
Last month, a drug dealer was arrested in Seaside with more than 700 pills that he told police were likely fake. Law enforcement also believes the pills could be laced with fentanyl.
Part Two: Treatment And Recovery
It’s a mid-Monday morning at Valley Health Associates in Salinas. Patients are waiting silently in the reception area to be called through to receive medication and meet with their counselors.
They’re called not by their name but by a number. That’s to protect their privacy because these patients are being treated for opioid use disorders.
“The mission of Valley Health Associates is to work with the community and make an impact, a positive impact, to reduce the opioid use epidemic,” said Guillermo Rodriguez. He’s the clinical director of the non-profit.
Rodriguez is the clinical director of the non-profit. Valley Health Associates help patients get off opioids using Medication Assistance Treatment (MAT).
“We provide methadone and buprenorphine. So what that does is helps to reduce the cravings. So there is an opiate blocker that blocks the symptomatic effects of the use and they will no longer feel the effect,” said Rodriquez.
Patients can stay on MAT medications for years or even their whole lives.
Valley Health Associates has almost 100 patients right now, and there’s room for more. Rodriguez cares for and counsels about a dozen patients himself.
He says this work chose him.
“At one point in my life I also was an addict myself. I believe I started at the age of 17… is when I started exploring substances, illicit substances,” said Rodriquez.
At one stage of his life, Rodriguez was living on the streets and even spent some time in prison. That’s when things started to change for him.
“But once I came out and went to a treatment program myself, then that's when I realized that I needed to change not just my way of thinking, but my behavior,” said Rodriguez.
He has been sober for 12 years.
One of the people Rodriguez has helped get off opioids is Kyle, 27. We’re only using his first name to protect his privacy.
Kyle says he started drinking and doing cocaine as a teen. When he was about 20, he got hooked on opioids.
“I don't know, I guess I just reached a low point in my life and I just said ‘F it,’ and just went with it,” Kyle said.
He says he hit rock bottom every day.
“All of all… all revolving around money or trying to get enough money or just a chase, just a constant chase,” said Kyle.
Then he started hearing about MAT.
“I decided, you know what, I'll try methadone. I have nothing else to lose,” said Kyle.
He has been sober for 11 months. MAT has worked for him.
“Maybe I'm lucky or something, but my urges just kind of just disappeared. Maybe that's because I have things I like to do in life. I have passions and I play music and stuff. So maybe that was a part of it,” Kyle said.
Kyle has managed to get sober at a time when opioid overdose deaths have dramatically increased in Monterey County.