Powerful opiate fentanyl suspected in 10th Northern California overdose death

Fentanyl pills
(Associated Press)

A 10th person has died and several more have overdosed in Sacramento County since authorities announced that a powerful opiate had hit the streets and was being sold as a counterfeit pill, officials said this week.

Two weeks ago authorities began seeing overdoses they believed were tied to fentanyl, a painkiller that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses. More than a dozen overdoses were reported whithin 48 hours, county health officials said.

Some of the patients believed they were taking Norco, a less potent opiate, that can sell for $3 to $5 per pill, authorities said.

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Since the first patients rolled into the emergency room on March 23, 42 people are believed to have overdosed on fentanyl, 10 of them fatally. Nine of the deaths were in Sacramento County and one was in nearby Yolo County, federal officials said.

Sacramento County health officials warned people about taking pills not prescribed to them.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety alert Friday warning that fentanyl-related overdoses are “occurring at an alarming rate” and urging the public to take only drugs prescribed by a physician and from a reputable pharmacy. The Sacramento-area overdose victims ranged from 18 to 59 years old and comprised equal numbers of men and women, according to the alert.

Authorities fear the rash of cases portends the move west of rampant fentanyl abuse that had largely been centered on the East Coast, its spread probably channeled through Mexican drug cartels, medical and law enforcement officials said.

In Los Angeles County, fatal overdoses related to fentanyl increased to 62 in 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — from 42 in 2011, according to coroner’s data. While not matching East Coast levels, the rise is troubling, officials said.

“The prescription drug issue hasn’t touched us in the same way,” said Dr. Gary Tsai, medical director and science officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s office of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control. “Our concern is that it will, that it’s only a matter of time.”

Directors of West Coast drug treatment programs have been bracing for problems related to fentanyl, which can lower blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory function and lead to seizures, said Rachel Anderson, executive director of the Sacramento-area needle exchange Safer Alternatives Thru Networking & Education.

Prescribed to cancer patients since the 1960s, fentanyl is the most powerful painkiller available for medical treatment, and is typically administered as a lozenge, patch or injection. But an illegally manufactured version of the drug, often called “China White” or “Apache,” has begun spreading recently.

Between 2012 and 2014, the number of seizures of illegally used fentanyl nationwide increased more than sevenfold to 4,585, according to federal officials.

The painkiller offers an intense, euphoric high and the odorless, white powder is sometimes used to cut heroin and cocaine or passed off as another drug. Dealers mix it in to give their product an extra kick or to cheaply produce more usable heroin, Anderson said.

“Is it new? Yes and no. We’ve been aware of what’s going on the East Coast and expecting it to show up in one form or another,” Anderson said.

Times staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.

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