Prompted by a surge in opioid overdoses in Santa Clarita, a sheriff's strike team has arrested dozens of suspected drug dealers, even as deputies are being trained and equipped to administer antidote in overdose emergencies, County officials said Wednesday.
During one three day period in April, Henry Mayo Hospital received seven opioids overdoses, said Capt. Robert Lewis, commander of the LA Sheriff's Santa Clarita station. One of the patients could not be saved.
Lewis requested additional narcotics enforcement deputies, and the team made six arrests in the first week, and a total of 39. Also seized were more than two pounds of heroin, including one bag laced with the synthetic and even more potent opioid fentanyl, Lewis said.
Preparation for deputies to be able to administer Narcan nasal spray before emergency medical responders arrive has been overseen by Sheriff's Commander Judy Gerhardt, who lost a nephew to heroin.
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"Maxwell, we called him 'Mackie,' was just one of 50,000 people who lost their lives last year because of an opiate overdose," said Gerhardt.
Drug overdoses now claim more American lives than automobile accidents. Six in ten fatal overdoses involve opioids, and have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Opiods include the illegal street drug heroin, as well as multiple prescription pain-killers, derived from opium or synthesized.
The original formulation of Narcan was delivered by injection. Now there is a nasal spray that does not require a medical professional to administer.
"Deploying Narcan is an immediate intervention, but it's certainly not a solution to the problem. So it's a first step," Gerhardt said.
The step was hailed as life-saving by LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. This week the Board established a working group to examine opioid overdoses and deaths in the county, and develop responses expected to include intervention, treatment, and education.
"It is incumbent upon the County to be aware of the growing opioid epidemic and to work collaboratively to reach vulnerable populations," Barger said.
The initiative will be called U-CAN (Conquer Addiction Now).
What specifically prompted the surge in overdoses in Santa Clarita is not clear. Officials emphasized it is not a localized problem.
"It's not unique to Santa Clarita," said Mayor Cameron Smyth. "What's unique is how we've tackled it."
Two recovering heroin users now in treatment said the upsurge in overdoses and deaths was a factor in their seeking help.
"It's like playing Russian Roulette," said Nick, 24, who grew up in Valencia. "You have no idea what's in it. You're playing with death every time you use."
Nick said he began taking prescription painkillers for athletic injuries in high school, and moved to heroin two years ago. He's now recovering at a facility operated by Action Family Counseling.
"It's building in Valencia. You can find it almost any neighborhood, any street," Nick said.
"More of the pill addicts who've said, "'I would never use heroin,' are now running to the streets to get heroin because they can't get enough pills. The doctors are cutting them off," said Cary Quashen, Action Family Counseling founder and CEO.
Another recovering heroin user, Scott, said he also began with prescription pills before becoming addicted to heroin.
"It hits you real hard, " Scott said. "And, you know, a lot of people die because of it."
Some have questioned whether increasing the availability of Narcan could have the perverse effect of unintentionally encouraging opiod abuse.
To Nick, that's not the point. Saving lives is.
"It's proven that it works. Either you have it or you don't. You're dead or you're not."