There are signs that deaths connected to fentanyl, a powerful painkiller tied to a string of fatal overdoses in Northern California, are on the rise in the Los Angeles area, law enforcement and health officials said this week.
The drug, an opiate used on patients after surgery that's up to 100 times stronger than morphine, is appearing now more than ever in overdoses in California as a prescription drug abuse epidemic evolves nationwide.
Deadly in small doses, drug dealers and producers are using the opiate to either spike doses of heroin for greater potency at a cheaper cost or as a counterfeit for another drug like Norco, according to Sacramento County health officials.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health announced that while fentanyl-related deaths hovered around 40 a year between 2011 and 2013, deaths jumped to 62 in 2014, about a 50% increase. Data for 2015 and 2016 were not available.
The uptick, along with a string of 51 overdoses, 11 of them fatal, in the Sacramento County area over the last month, triggered an alert from the California Department of Public Health.
The state has requested that health officials report any suspected fentanyl-related overdoses or deaths and to warn people with a history of substance abuse about the wave of recent incidents.
"Obviously it's been big on the East Coast and Midwest, it's possible that it could be coming this way," said John Martin, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco.
Fentanyl is a new wrinkle in the drug trade, he said. Approximately 700 people died from fentanyl and its analogs nationwide between late 2013 and late 2014, according to a recent report from the DEA.
Past investigations have revealed that Mexican cartels are purchasing fentanyl produced in China then using traditional trafficking routes to bring it into the United States. In 2014, DEA officers seized 26 pounds of fentanyl in a stash house in Los Angeles.
A few grains of the odorless white powder, often called "China white" or "Apache," can be enough to kill.
Prescribed to cancer patients for decades, fentanyl is the most powerful painkiller available for medical treatment. It's typically administered as a lozenge, patch or injection to patients with severe pain.
In February, agents at the U.S.-Mexico border's Otay Mesa Port of Entry caught a man attempting to smuggle in about 1,200 tablets of fentanyl labeled as oxycodone. Fentanyl is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin and can be absorbed through the skin, authorities said.
The arrests were the first time authorities found fentanyl masked as oxycodone at the passing through the Mexico border, authorities said.
"This is just another face of the opioid epidemic," said Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.
The demand for fentanyl will remain strong until the prescription drug epidemic is under control, he said.
"Do we need to be worried about it? Yes," Alexander said. "But I don't think ... these deaths can be separated from the surge in overuse of prescription opioid. It's part and parcel of the same problem."
Staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.
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