DA Tim Ward, Central Valley leaders gather in fight against fentanyl

Law enforcement, lawmakers, and medical professionals join forces to discuss the dangers surrounding fentanyl in the Central Valley as well as how to find solutions

TULARE COUNTY – Wednesday evening public officials gathered in front of Fox 26 cameras to shine a light on the dangers of fentanyl in the Central Valley.

At a town hall meeting on June 14, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and other Central Valley leaders came together to discuss the current state of fentanyl use in California. The panel expressed their thoughts on what laws are making it difficult to punish those selling fentanyl, as well as some other prominent concerns surrounding the opioid.

“Fentanyl is a new tragedy that’s befallen the criminal justice system. The justice system and the laws on the books right now are not geared to address fentanyl,” Ward said.

Fentanyl has become the most widely distributed narcotic in Tulare County as well as across the nation. The Drug Enforcement Agency seized 379 million fentanyl pills last year – enough to kill every American. According to Tim Ward, one of our biggest hurdles in fighting against the illegal use of fentanyl is the inability to appropriately prosecute fentanyl dealers due to Assembly Bill (AB) 109.

The bill states that those convicted of less serious felonies such as drug-related crimes should serve their time in county jail instead of state prison. According to Ward, the county jail is overcrowded and many of the fentanyl dealers who received maximum sentences will walk free as a result.

A person can be arrested for transporting 150,000 fentanyl pills. They’re arrested, prosecuted, punished and they are sent to county jail…That individual is going to walk right out and the criminals know it,” Ward said.

Ward explained that relying on federal partners is often the way to get more appropriate punishments for these crimes that often do lead to “meaningful treatment and rehabilitation.”

We are incredibly lucky here in the valley to have a very good relationship with our federal partners in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Ward said. “It’s time to act. We need meaningful laws on the books, prosecutors need the ability to hold those that distribute this poison accountable and convict them of murder.”

The meeting also brought up how accessible fentanyl is now due to technology such as a sort of “menu” being used on Snapchat, where users can order drugs with emojis to avoid being caught. Because of this, law enforcement as well as the Fresno County superintendent of schools Dr. Michelle Cantwell-Copher stressed the importance of being active in kid’s lives and taking away their phones when necessary.

The panel repeatedly stressed the dangers of fentanyl use throughout the meeting. It was brought up by multiple people that any experimentation with non regulated drugs could be deadly because so much of it is laced with fentanyl.

“It takes only two milligrams of fentanyl to kill someone. That’s the equivalent of three grains of sugar,” medical director for WestCare California Dr. Herbert Cruz said.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine, and is much more dangerous than both. Tulare County suffered 57 opioid-related deaths in 2021. Fentanyl causes a fatality every 8 minutes and is linked to nearly two-thirds of all drug fatalities. Fentanyl was the leading cause of death for people ages 18-45 in 2021, outpacing COVID-19, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.

Some at the meeting thought the best way to fight fentanyl is with the methods known as harm reduction. The National Harm Reduction Coalition calls on people to consider illicit drug use as part of our world and chooses to minimize its efforts rather than ignore or condemn them. Harm reduction calls for non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs while acknowledging that some ways of using drugs are safer than others.

At the town hall, it was noted that public health experts have gone on the record saying that harsher sentences for federal convictions can keep people from calling 911 out of fear. Harm reduction allows for addicts to seek the help they need without fear of harsh punishments. In response to this, many of the panel members expressed that they believe in harsher sentences for dealers and cartels, but not for drug addicts.

Flindt Andersen, founder of PAIN (parents & addicts in need) expressed his dislike of some of the harm reduction methods such as long-term use of suboxone and methadone which are drugs that help detox the body from opiates when someone is experiencing withdrawal symptoms. According to Anderson, these drugs can be particularly difficult to go off of if taken for too long.

However, Dr. Herbert Cruz from WestCare California shared a different perspective on harm reduction.

“In my treatment, world harm reduction doesn’t mean having someone on methadone for 35 years,” Cruz said. “(Medication is) the entryway into recovery…but it’s never our intent to keep them on that forever.”

The best way to combat an overdose of fentanyl is with Narcan. Narcan is the brand name for the medication naloxone, which counteracts the lethal effect of opioids like fentanyl. A life-saving dose of Narcan can quickly reverse an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids. According to the CDC, it can restore normal breathing within 2 to 3 minutes. The drug can be bought over-the-counter at a pharmacy as a nasal spray.

According to Andersen, the PAIN organization gives Narcan to parents and addicts in need for free.

“All you have to do is call us. Come on in, we’ll show you how to use it,” Andersen said.

It was also mentioned at the town hall that Narcan could be available at schools to address potential cases of emergency overdose situations. Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria (D-Fresno) expressed her support for legislation like AB 19 which would require schools in California to have at least two doses of emergency Narcan available on campus in case of an overdose – something that might come in handy, according to an item brought up Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama.

From Balderrama’s account, despite a reported decrease in fentanyl deaths in 2022 from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which confirmed that fentanyl-related deaths were down 9% last year, the issue of fentanyl use continues to increase. An example he cited of this was an increased use amongst children.

In his discussion, Balderrama noted that, in the circumstance where children are using drugs that could be laced with fentanyl, they have taken to using the “buddy system” to avoid potential fentanyl overdoses. That way, in case of an accidental overdose, the other individual can administer the overdosing person with Narcan.

With that, Balderrama confirmed the increased awareness does decrease overdoses; however, he said it does not necessarily decrease drug use. The police chief thinks there are indicators that drug fentanyl use is getting worse.

“Fentanyl pills here were $25, now they’re $8. You know why? Because there’s more of them,” Balderrama said.

HHSA runs DrugFreeTC.com in conjunction with the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office. The site’s motto, “One Pill Can Kill,” underscores the danger of children accepting medication from anyone other than their parents, school nurse or doctor. The website also points out fentanyl pills can look identical to prescription medication, increasing the likelihood of accidental exposure to the drug.

If you need help, call the 24-hour Alcohol and Other Drug Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Access Line 1-866-732-4114.

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