Dying to get high — Part Two

One might think Lassen County’s Sheriff/Coroner Dean Growdon could easily tell us exactly how many people in Lassen County died from a fentanyl overdose during the last year. He says he can’t do that.

First of all, drug users who overdose frequently use a variety of drugs at the same time. For example, the traditional speedball is a combination of heroin and cocaine. The heroin may be laced with fentanyl or replaced by it, and the cocaine also may be laced with fentanyl or replaced by something else such methamphetamine. And would you be too surprised to discover drug users may also have been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana? So, it’s hard for the coroner to determine exactly which of the drugs in this cocktail caused the death. Was it a single drug or a combination of several? Hard to tell.

Secondly, Growdon said if someone who overdoses in Lassen County is transported to Washoe County and dies there, that overdose death happened in Nevada. Lassen News’ attempts to obtain those statistics from the Washoe County Coroner proved unsuccessful at deadline.

“It’s pretty much everywhere (opioids) now, especially with fentanyl,” Growdon said. “We really started seeing it heavy the last couple of years. We’ve had a lot of overdoses and a lot of saves with Naloxone, too. We’ve had a lot in the jail and a few in the community, too.”

Lassen County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Dustin Russell said fentanyl use in Lassen County is a significant problem.

“It’s killing people regularly,” Russell said.

“We find a lot of people in their cars passed out,” Russell said. “It’s similar to what we see with heroin, but it happens way more frequently now because it’s so much stronger now.”

Russell acknowledged heroin isn’t a “regulated drug,” but its potency is somewhat predictable. But there’s such a huge discrepancy in the potency of fentanyl here in Lassen County.

“Fentanyl is stronger, and it has such a difference in potency, depending on what they cut it with and everything else,” Russell said. “It’s so much stronger people are either becoming unconscious or they’re dying from it. We definitely see it all the time. We’ve had more overdoses the last two years than we’ve ever seen before. It’s way too many.”

Russell said, “There are some people who like to use drugs, and they’ll just use all the drugs they can. And then there are other people who want the pick me up, they want to move, they want to go … Those people use meth. For other people a lot of time it stems from some kind of traumatic condition they have physically. They would use pain pills to start with, then they usually move on to heroin, and now they’re using fentanyl. It’s basically the same — it’s going to bring you down, it’s going to put you on the nod. People want their pain to go away. For the people who want the pain to go away, it’s cheap and it’s very potent.”

Believe it or not, Russell said some people use fentanyl and meth together.

“You see people who are completely normal one day, and then you see them a couple of weeks later and they’re completely out of their minds because they’re just frying it by using fentanyl or both of those things together.”

And for those who love California law, Russell pointed out one of those curious new wrinkles. While someone overdosed or passed out in a car may be arrested for driving under the influence, the situation can be completely different when law enforcement responds to a overdose outside a vehicle.

“If a 911 call is placed because someone who has used drugs needs medical attention, we can’t act on it legally,” Russell said. “If somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, my friend just overdosed or they’re dying, we can’t go there and charge him with any crime. It’s a medical call. Before (the new law) it was both — they need medical assistance, but they’re also breaking the law. They got treated medically and got in trouble legally. But now that’s gone away.”

While it’s good to encourage people not to use these dangerous drugs, local citizens may not have many ways to influence the behavior of addicts, Russell said.

“It’s such a deep-rooted problem,” Russell said. “Probably the way they were raised, and then their friend circles. I think more and more people are making it available for free to a lot of people … People have Narcan. We have these deaths, but we’re not even talking about all the people who have been brought back from not breathing.”

Russell said one citizen law enforcement encountered was saved by Narcan — they were lifeless and Narcan brought them back — and within 24 hours they died of an overdose.

“What Narcan does is completely take away your high,” Russell said. “It just blocks the receptors in your body that the chemical numbs. When it blocks that, it completely takes away their high, and that makes some of them angry.”

Russell said this has happened dozens of times. And saving people who overdose doesn’t just come from law enforcement or medical first responders.

“It’s not even just us,” Russell said. “Most of the people who are using fentanyl or heroin have access to free Narcan and are using it on themselves. They’re using it. We’re using it. The ambulance is using it … They made it free for people because it saves lives. Kind of like the clean needle programs.”

Russell said when fentanyl is used in a medical setting, it’s under a doctor’s supervision, and they know how much they’re giving a patient.

“They know how potent it is, and they know how much to give you,” Russell said. “When you’re using this stuff that’s in pill form or powder form on the street, you don’t know how much you’re supposed to take. If a person is given a pill and they’re only supposed to only take a quarter of it, how are they supposed to know that? They’re going to take the whole thing, and then they’re going to die. It’s obviously not regulated because it’s street made.”

According to Russell law enforcement was seeing a lot of fentanyl in pill form but now they’re seeing more powder again.

“I think somebody who got busted locally, and the pill form kind of stopped coming in as much, so we’re seeing more powder now,” Russell said.

And another danger is dealers also sell counterfeit pills that appear to be pharmaceutical drugs, but they’re not.

So where does this drug come from?

Russell said if there’s money to be made the cartels are going to get their fingers in it, but it also comes from people who are not involved with the cartels as well. Some people are smart enough to figure out how to get the chemicals and make the drug themselves.

Here’s the thing. If you’re messing with this stuff, you should realize you’re playing with fire. Fentanyl can kill you.