Fentanyl was involved in nearly half of all drug deaths in Los Angeles County last year.

Orange County saw fentanyl involved in 64% of its drug deaths while the synthetic opioid was found in 42% of drug deaths in Riverside County.

In recent years, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, has been involved in more overdose deaths than any other illicit drug in the U.S., authorities said.

A large number of young adults and teenagers have been among those killed by fentanyl use.

In Los Angeles County, from November 2019 to October 2020, 187 males and females between the ages of 15 to 24 years old died from drug-related deaths involving fentanyl, according to data provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition, 340 people aged 25 to 34 years old in the county also died from the drug.

Some parents have advocated for tougher laws against drug dealers, calling their children’s deaths poisonings, rather than overdoses.

“We are targeting street level dealers who have left a trail of death,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison on Thursday during a press conference in front of a downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse.

The charges announced Thursday are the result of three years of investigations by a DEA task force, which collaborates with local law enforcement, intended to curb overdose deaths. During that time, the amount of fentanyl recovered by law enforcement exploded. In 2017, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura counties, authorities seized 119,369 fentanyl tablets. That number grew to more than 300,000 in 2018 and 2019 and in 2020, surged to 1.2 million fentanyl tablets found across region.

The driving factors for why the presence of fentanyl grew so rapidly in 2020 are varied, but some health experts have attributed the rise to an increased demand for opioids during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced people into isolation, proving difficult for many who are experiencing drug addition or are in addiction recovery.

Early in the pandemic, federal officials loosened access for DEA-registered providers to prescribe controlled substances like buprenorphine and methadone to individuals with opioid addiction disorders. Still, with less in-person support, health experts have said many patients turned to the illicit drug market.

Much of the flow of fentanyl comes from cartels in Mexico, which send such drugs across the border for distribution, feeding a group of new opiate users across California, said DEA Special Agent in Charge Bill Bodner.

“Here in California it’s now new users that have experimented with prescription drugs, or going straight to opiate drugs,” Bodner said. Many buyers of fentanyl, he said, think they are buying less potent prescription drugs like oxycodone.

Many dealers use social media apps and other online platforms to sell fentanyl. Bodner said dealers will mask their sales on sites like Craigslist with ads for clothing, concert tickets, or construction equipment. In two of the cases announced Thursday, dealers used Snapchat to communicate with buyers.

On May 17, 2020, Lopez, one of the defendants, allegedly negotiated a deal on Snapchat to sell fake oxycodone pills containing fentanyl to a 20-year-old Fontana man, prosecutors said. The 20-year-old buyer died of an overdose two days later.

Prosecutors allege Alexander Declan Bell Wilson, 20, of Rolling Hills also used Snapchat to sell fentanyl pills to a 15-year-old boy who also thought he was buying oxycodone. The boy died on May 15, 2020. Wilson, the son of Rolling Hills Councilman Patrick Wilson, also was accused in 2019 of beating and robbing an autistic man in a mall parking structure in Rolling Hills Estates.

Though Thursday’s announcement on 11 cases was the largest of its kind from federal officials in Southern California since the formation of the DEA task force in 2018, prosecutors previously have filed charges in other fentanyl overdose cases.

Before Thursday, prosecutors charged dealers in about a dozen other cases that led to overdose deaths, including charges filed against the man who sold fentanyl-laced pills to rapper Mac Miller, who died in his Studio City home in 2018, Wilkison said. The task force is continuing its investigation into other overdose cases and expected to file further charges.

On the state and local level, some lawmakers have introduced bills that would label fentanyl as a “Schedule I” drug, alongside other illicit drugs like heroin and methamphetamines. Currently, fentanyl is categorized as a less-threatening Schedule II drug, despite it carrying greater potency.

One lawmaker, Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, introduced a bill that would open the opportunity for prosecutors to charge fentanyl dealers with murder.

Prosecutors in Riverside County have already done exactly that, filing murder charges in three separate fentanyl overdose cases, drawing support from the father of one of the individuals killed in the cases.

In the federal cases announced Thursday, such charges would carry a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence and a potential maximum sentence of life without parole in federal prison if each defendant is convicted.

Credit: East Bay Times