Health

Opioid Use Slowing But Continues to Take San Diegans’ Lives

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Opioid pills

Local prescription drug deaths declined in 2018. Deaths due to heroin increased. And fentanyl deaths continued to climb.

This is what the County’s 2019 Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card shows regarding the opioid epidemic in the region. The annual report card was released today.

The latest report shows 246 San Diegans died from prescription drugs last year, a decline of 10% over the previous year.

“Prescription drugs continue to take a toll in our communities,” said Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, County Board of Supervisors. “It’s especially troublesome to see heroin and fentanyl deaths go up as a result of the growing opioid epidemic not just in San Diego but across the country.”

In addition to deaths, the report card tracks additional key indicators of opioid misuse in the county. It also shows the following (most recent years for which numbers are available vary by statistic):

  • 6,607 visits to local emergency rooms in 2017, compared to 7,005 in 2016. Data for last year won’t be available until 2020.
  • Fewer 11thgraders reported prescription drug use in 2017.
  • Nearly half of adults arrested reported misusing prescription drugs in 2018

Heroin: Deaths Up

The County and its partners ramped up efforts to address the prescription drug misuse problem in the region 11 years ago. In 2008, the County Board of Supervisors established the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, which includes the County Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney, the Health and Human Services Agency, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and multiple other key partners including local law enforcement, treatment, and health and prevention organizations.

The group is proud of the local success in bringing this problem to the community’s attention, but prescription drug misuse continues to be a problem in San Diego County, especially pain medications’ link to increased use of heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The Report Card also provides key findings regarding heroin’s impact in the region:

  • A total of 105 deaths from heroin were reported last year, compared to 83 in 2017.
  • Heroin use in the region continues to be fueled by prescription drug misuse because heroin is cheaper and easier to get.
  • Combined, prescription drugs and heroin killed 351 people last year, eight fewer than in 2017.

Fentanyl: Fatalities Increase

Another troubling trend occurring in the region is the continued increase in the number of deaths because of fentanyl, an illicit synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin. This high potency is lethal, even in tiny doses.

Last year, 92 people died from fentanyl. This is the highest number of deaths from fentanyl ever recorded in San Diego County.

A few granules of fentanyl is a fatal dose for most people. Because of its potency, fentanyl overdoses may require additional Naloxone, a medication that reverses overdose from opioids.

According to law enforcement, more than 75 percent of the fentanyl and fake pills produced in Mexico enter the United States through the Tijuana-San Diego border via passenger cars, container trucks or mules.

The so-called “pressed blues” resemble oxycodone pills but actually contain fentanyl.

“Because these pills are illegally made to look like real prescription pills, users do not know the pills contain lethal fentanyl resulting in high overdose potential,” said Luke Bergmann, director of Behavioral Health Services for the County Health and Human Services Agency.

In 2018, a total of 527 people died from overdoses and other circumstances involving prescription drugs, alcohol, heroin, fentanyl and other illegal substances.

Drug Treatment Works

The County funds prevention and treatment services throughout the region. Treatment is available by calling the County’s Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

Preventing drug misuse and getting people into treatment is one of the goals of the County’s Live Well San Diego vision, which aims to improve the health and safety of residents in the region.

Take Back Day is Oct. 26

All prescribed medications should be taken only as prescribed and never shared with someone else. Everyone is encouraged to get rid of unused medications properly by using the year-round collection containers in all Sheriff’s locations and at the bi-annual prescription drug take back events so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Safe disposal and collection of unused, unneeded prescription drugs started in San Diego County in 2009. The national Take Back days began in 2010 and now occur in April and October.

Last year, San Diegans turned in over 14,000 pounds of prescription drugs at San Diego County Sheriff’s collection boxes and more than 22,000 pounds during takeback events.

This year, the Drug Enforcement Administration will also be accepting e-cigarette and vaping devices—without batteries—from individual consumers. The next Prescription Drug Take Back Day is Saturday, Oct. 26.  Visit the DEA website to find a disposal location near you.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact