The San Diego County Board of Supervisors took a stand against illegal fentanyl flooding its streets by declaring a public health emergency.
There were more than 850 fentanyl-related deaths in San Diego County last year, according to the county, and leaders fear that toll will grow by the end of 2022. So what’s a declaration like the one made Tuesday going to change?
Supervisors say it will help the county raise awareness about the issue and secure the necessary resources to fight the drug the CDC claims was the number one killer of people 18 to 45 years old in the U.S. last year – that’s more deaths attributed to fentanyl than COVID, heart disease, gun violence and car accidents.
“Your heart just aches,” Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said. “Every one of these lives lost were somebody’s child. And the reality of addiction is for 100 years they’ve said, ‘We just need to punish the person addicted and if we punish them enough they’ll stop,’” and we’ve got 100 years of data that tells us that doesn’t work. So what we’ve got to do is meet that individual facing addiction where they are in a non-judgmental way and offer them treatment, offer them help.”
Looking closer at San Diego, supervisors say that over 66% of powder fentanyl seized along the southwest border last year happened in our county.
The statistics seem to support the county’s declaration, but despite all the deaths, people working to fight the epidemic say the public is still not fully aware of the dangers posed by fentanyl.
“A lot of people may have the feeling, ‘Oh, this is something that happens to somebody else. This is something that – Wow, this is really bad, but it would never happen to anybody I know,” Bernard Gonzales with the San Diego County Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force (PDATF) said. “This is the real danger of this substance.”
It only takes a few micrograms to make up a lethal dose of fentanyl, according to law enforcement. Advocate groups have pushed for county law enforcement personnel to have access to overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan and Naloxone
Nathan Smiddy, known affectionately as Narcan Nate, does outreach across the county supplying people with, and teaching them how to use, Narcan and naloxone.
“We can have all the resources, but we have to go to the people that need it. I could have all the Narcan, all the fentanyl test strips ... but if I’m not meeting people where they’re at, if I’m not giving them dignity and humanity ... I’m not going to reach anybody,” Smiddy said.
Smiddy called the county’s declaration a step in the right direction but wants to see access to life-saving overdose reversal drugs expanded to include kids.
“My father was a police officer, I knew the cops who were running the DARE program, and ultimately I endeavored in substance abuse, so kids, for better or worse, are going to endeavor in substance abuse and they need to know what to do, they need to know they’re protected if they call 911, they need to have access to naloxone because they just did a survey that said kids wouldn’t call 911 if their friend was in danger. So what would they do?”
Smiddy’s friends talked him into getting on social media platforms which he now uses to talk about his 8-year fight with drug abuse and his 3-and-a-half-year journey through sobriety. He said he survived two overdoses and has lost 18 friends to overdoses.
In addition to his independent outreach, Smiddy works with the nonprofit A New Path to advocate for policy reform and treatment programs in place of punitive measures.
The County’s Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force has fentanyl-related resources available for parents and the community on their website.