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Claremont police investigate deaths by possible fentanyl overdose

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

The Claremont Police Department is in the midst of a months-long investigating into at least two recent deaths that may have been caused by an overdose of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“We have a number of death cases that we’re investigating,” said Claremont Police Department Lieutenant Jason Walters. “There are a number steps we need to go through to find out: Was it fentanyl involved? Was it a straight overdose on, let’s say, heroin or meth or whatever it is? So until we get some autopsy reports back and find the exact cause of death, I can’t tell you if in fact these are natural deaths or, yes, they were related to an overdose, which could include fentanyl, among other things.”
Social media users have for months been awash with rumors about young people overdosing, and the COURIER has been notified by more than one parent that their teen knew of someone who overdosed.

“I can assure that we’re looking into it and we’re doing everything we can to identify if [these cases] are connected one way or another, and if they are, we’ll identify who’s selling the drugs or providing the drugs to those people and we’ll address that accordingly,” Lt. Walters said.

Sources familiar with the situation say at least four teens have died from drug overdoses in Claremont since 2019. Three of them, they say, have occurred since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, and one of those involved was a student at Claremont High School.

The CPD investigation is focused on deaths of non-high school aged people, Lieutenant Walters said.

“I can tell you that the cases that were currently looking into, the ones that I’m thinking about, are not high school students,” he said. “One of them was outside our jurisdiction but, yes, related to the Claremont area.”

Sources say at least some of the recent deaths of teens involved illicitly manufactured Percocet—a prescription pain killer that contains acetaminophen and oxycodone—cut with fentanyl. “Nowadays they’re cutting these pills with fentanyl, and fentanyl is highly potent and extremely dangerous,” Lt. Walters said. “And if you get the wrong amount—or any amount for that matter—but especially if it’s a high dosage of fentanyl, there’s a very good chance you’re going to pass away from it.”

Lieutenant Walters could not say how long the investigation might take to complete.

“We know this is a serious situation,” Lt. Walters said. “We understand that. We are working as quickly as we can on it, but search warrants and things like that, they just take a little bit of time.”

In the late 1990s fentanyl was touted by the pharmaceutical industry as a non-addictive pain reliever. The synthetic opioid, which is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, has since been tied to widespread addiction and ever-increasing overdose deaths in the US.

Opioids are substances that work in the nervous system of the body or in specific receptors in the brain to reduce the intensity of pain.

According to 2018 data from the National Institutes of Health, 128 people in the United States die each day after overdosing on opioids such as prescription pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 750,000 people have died since 1999 from drug overdoses, and two out of three drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid. Overdose deaths involving opioids have increased almost six times since 1999.

The NIH data show a trio of related findings: the increase in overall opioid overdose deaths since fentanyl was introduced in the 1990s; a spike in heroin overdoses beginning in 2010; and the more recent rise in deaths associated with illicitly manufactured, non-prescription fentanyl.

“Most of the increases in fentanyl deaths over the last three years do not involve prescription fentanyl, but are related to illicitly-made fentanyl that is being mixed with or sold as heroin—with or without the users’ knowledge and increasing as counterfeit pills,” the CDC reports.

According to Drug Enforcement Administration’s December 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment, fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids are primarily sourced from China and Mexico. The drugs continue to be the most lethal category of illicit substances misused in the US, according to the DEA.

“Fentanyl continues to be sold as counterfeit prescriptions pills as traffickers—wittingly or unwittingly—are increasingly selling fentanyl to users both alone and as an adulterant, leading to rising fentanyl-involved deaths,” the federal DEA assessment said. “Fentanyl suppliers will continue to experiment with other new synthetic opioids in an attempt to circumvent new regulations imposed by the United States and China.”

If the CPD investigation results in an arrest or arrests, the case or cases could be tried either in LA County or at the federal level. Which avenue is taken has to do with the findings of the investigation; if its determined that someone died as a result of taking drugs supplied by the suspect or suspects named in the warrant, it’s more likely to be tried at the federal level.

If the DEA takes the case and gets a conviction on trafficking, a first offender could be sentenced to 20 years to life in prison “if death or serious bodily injury” is proven, according to Title 21 of the US Code.

 “The safest thing is to don’t use drugs, obviously,” Lt. Walters said, “because you never know what you’re getting from whomever is selling it to you. They may tell you it’s one thing and it may be completely the opposite. You don’t know exactly what you’re getting.”

An opiate overdose antidote, Narcan, is now available in a nasal spray. Families who suspect or know that a member uses illicit substances should have the drug on hand and know how to administer it.

For more information on opioids, see the CDC’s website, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/index.html, or the National Drug Helpline at http://drughelpline.org/opiate-hotline/.

If you or someone you know needs help with opioid addiction treatment, try the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website at www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/sapc, its 24-hour help line at (844) 804-7500, or the US Department of Health and Human Services help and resources page at www.hhs.gov/opioids, its national help line at (800) 662-4357, or click on www.findtreatment.gov.

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