‘Catastrophic results’: Nationwide plague of fentanyl persists across Sonoma County

“Epidemic, pandemic, whatever you want to call it. It’s killing a lot of people,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Kevin Naugle.|

One especially raucous moment during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech took place toward the end of his Tuesday night remarks, when he touched on the nationwide calamity caused by fentanyl.

That subject provoked an unruly — some would say disrespectful — farrago of shouted accusations from some Republican lawmakers, who blamed the president for allowing the drug to slip through the southern border.

Around 15 hours before that brouhaha, police in Lake County made an arrest that served as a reminder that the North Bay is not immune to the scourge of this highly addictive, synthetic opioid.

After pulling over James Biocca, of Healdsburg, on suspected vehicle code violations at 12:40 a.m. Tuesday, Lakeport police said they found just under 100 grams of fentanyl in his possession, along with 21 grams of methamphetamine.

Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is a potentially lethal dose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Based on this scale, authorities believe the amount of fentanyl seized during that traffic stop was enough to potentially kill up to 49,400 people, or more than the population of Rohnert Park.

Five years ago, according to Lakeport Police Chief Brad Rasmussen, it was far less common for his officers to encounter fentanyl, which according to the DEA is “100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic.”

“But now we’re seeing more instances of it, responding to more fentanyl overdoses,” he said.

Illicit fentanyl has become a potent additive to heroin, cocaine, and even counterfeit prescription drugs.

Whether it’s made in Mexico or China, fentanyl sold on the streets in this country isn’t manufactured in “a sterile laboratory,” Rasmussen added.

“Let’s say if they make 10 pills, you could end up with some that don’t have any fentanyl in them, some that have a minimal amount, and some with a fatal amount. And if you take the wrong pill, you’re dead.”

'It’s terrifying’

This image shows one of the billboards posted around Sonoma County to discourage fentanyl use. The county launched a campaign Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. (Sonoma County District Attorney's Office)
This image shows one of the billboards posted around Sonoma County to discourage fentanyl use. The county launched a campaign Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. (Sonoma County District Attorney's Office)

Last fall, billboards highlighting the dangers of fentanyl use — “One Pill Can Kill,” some warned — appeared around Sonoma County, part of an outreach campaign launched by the District Attorney’s Office and other agencies.

Yes, fentanyl is a nationwide problem, “but we’re seeing it here, too,” said Sonoma County District Attorney Carla Rodriguez, who expressed particular concern that the drug is now so “easily accessible,” even to children.

“A recent trend we’re seeing is the illicit manufacturers of fentanyl are making their pills look like candy — Skittles or Smarties or Sweet Tarts,” she said. “And anyone with a phone can order them online and not know there’s a fatal dose of fentanyl in there. It’s terrifying.”

One reason the problem is getting worse, said Rodriguez, is a lack of sufficient deterrence.

She pointed to California Assembly Bill 109, which was passed in 2011 and designed to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons. That bill shifted responsibility for some non-violent offenders from the state to the counties.

That law “basically changed the sentencing for 500 felonies,” said Rodriguez.

A drug dealing offense that once carried up to four years in state prison now is served in local jail, and the sentence is further shortened by a built-in period of parole, with “half-time credits” earned on pre- and post-conviction jail time.

Bottom line: drug dealers convicted at the state level now serve their time in local jail. While the law did address prison overcrowding — “and that’s totally just,” said Rodriguez — “you don’t have scary consequences for drug dealing. And this is what happens.”

A 2,550% increase

Fentanyl is definitely showing up more frequently, and with “catastrophic results,” according to Deputy Rob Dillion, spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“Patrol deputies see fentanyl regularly in everything from possession and use to overdoses and related deaths,” he said.

In the first 11 months of 2022 there were 74 drug deaths caused by accidental overdoses in the county, most involving fentanyl intoxication, according to the Sonoma County Coroner.

As of late November, deaths involving fentanyl across the region had gone up 2,550% from 2017 through 2021, according to data from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

“Epidemic, pandemic, whatever you want to call it. It’s killing a lot of people,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Kevin Naugle, who spent five years as a detective in the department’s Narcotics Unit.

Fentanyl is “causing a lot of people to overdose. Even users that have been addicts for a long time could get what I refer to as a ‘hot batch,’ maybe one that is a little purer than they expected.”

It’s been his observation, Naugle said, that the fentanyl entering Sonoma County is coming from San Francisco and Oakland.

The drugs aren’t manufactured in the Bay Area, he emphasized. “Most, if not all, of this fentanyl is coming from Mexico and a number of countries south of the border.”

After the narcotic is delivered to “stash houses,” dealers often “break it down,” said Naugle.

They’ll add “their own special cutting agent” — the depressant benzodiazepines, for instance. “Whatever they do that allows them to make more product, make more money,” he said.

The number of fentanyl arrests isn’t necessarily indicative of the scope of the problem, Naugle added. “If we arrest somebody and take them to jail for a drug crime only, it’s a misdemeanor, and they’re able to cite out.”

Knowing this, police sometimes “tell ‘em to get rid of it, or take it from them and book it into our evidence to be destroyed.”

No one knows the true number of overdoses caused by the drug, Naugle said.

“Every place we go to with opiate and opioid users, we find Narcan all over the place,” he said, referring to the medicine used to treat an opioid overdose.

These users are prepared, Naugle said. They’ll sit in groups and say, ‘I’ll watch you use, and once you’re kind of coherent, you’re gonna watch me, and be available to give me Narcan.

“The ones that die are the ones that are by themselves, or they got a ‘hot shot,’ or a stronger dose” than they realized, he said. “Or it was their first time, or they thought it was cocaine but it was actually fentanyl and they sniffed a line — they were dead before they could even put the straw down.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of fentanyl-related drug deaths caused by accidental overdoses in Sonoma County in 2022.

Staff Writer Madison Smalstig contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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