Public Safety

Medical Examiner Mid-Year Statistics Show Jump in Fentanyl Deaths

Two blue round pills with an M etched on one and 30 on the other. The pills are counterfeit oxycodone.
Here are two counterfeit oxycodone pills known as M-30s. In July, counterfeit pills led to four deaths in 24 hours prompting a public safety warning from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Unintentional fentanyl overdose deaths in the San Diego region increased by 68% when comparing this year’s mid-year data with the same period for 2018, statistics just released by the County Medical Examiner’s Office show.

From January through June this year, there were 69 fentanyl deaths compared to 41 in the first six months of last year. Fentanyl is an illicit synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin. The high-potency drug is lethal, even in tiny doses.

“In the last decade when someone overdosed on fentanyl, it was often when someone was prescribed it, and perhaps put on too many fentanyl patches or altered the patches,” said Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Campman. “I can’t even remember the last time I saw a death from misused prescribed fentanyl.”

“Now, in the deaths we see, the fentanyl is illegally obtained as counterfeit oxycodone or alprazolam. Illegal drug makers and dealers make pills to look like oxycodone or alprazolam, but the pills have fentanyl in them, and they are deadly,” he said.

It is unclear if people are unknowingly buying counterfeit pills or powder, or if they are aware the pills are counterfeit.

“The drug isn’t designed to be put in a pill like that, and it takes very little of it to kill someone. And the illicit drug makers don’t have the kind of quality control measures that pharmaceutical companies have either,” Campman added.

In 2018, a total of 92 people died in fentanyl-related overdoses. In the months since June, Campman said, the Medical Examiner has continued to see more fentanyl accidental overdose deaths and the County is on track to exceed last year’s statistics.

For years, opioid deaths have been increasing nationwide, and San Diego has been behind the national trend, but that is starting to change.

“This is how we are seeing the opioid epidemic here, mostly in the rise in fentanyl deaths,” Campman said.

Methamphetamine, which accounts for the most drug toxicity deaths in San Diego County, saw a 24% increase for fatal cases, from 154 mid-year in 2018 to 191 cases this mid-year. For all of 2018, 328 people died in San Diego due to the acute toxicity of methamphetamine, sometimes in combination with another drug.

For context purposes, overall general unintentional fatal overdoses due to drug, medication, or alcohol increased by 7%, from 298 cases mid-year 2018 to 319 this mid-year.

This information as well as other data for the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office is now available at the department’s free searchable online portal. A one-page summary report is also available on the Reports and Statistics page.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact