Mendocino County, overwhelmed by fentanyl overdose deaths, puts antidote in deputies’ hands

Just four days after deputies in Mendocino County were trained in April to carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan, they were dispatched to a scene where two men had reportedly overdosed on a cocktail of drugs. Both were administered multiple doses of the narcotic painkiller antidote at a Redwood Valley home, but only one of them survived.

Death by opioid overdose is the biggest threat to county residents that law enforcement officers have to contend with, Capt. Gregory Van Patten said.

The synthetic drug fentanyl, a powerful pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, has presented a particular challenge in Mendocino and Lake counties, as well as statewide. There have been five fentanyl-related deaths in Mendocino County since January, an all-time high for any full year. In 2018, there were only two deaths for the entire year and the previous year when the county started recording such fatalities there were three cases. Before 2017, there were no deaths in Mendocino County attributed to a fentanyl overdose.

“In the last few years, there has been a big increase in overdose deaths, with fentanyl starting to become a more popular substance in these cases,” Van Patten said.

To curb opioid-related deaths, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the Mendocino Health and Human Services Agency recently formed a partnership. A county health department grant paid for 70 law enforcement employees to carry Narcan. They were trained how to administer it for an opioid overdose and also carried it to protect deputies in the field from fentanyl exposure.

Already, Mendocino deputies have used the antidote multiple times in the first few weeks of carrying it, and in some instances, giving four doses of Narcan nasal spray to resuscitate individuals.

“What we are starting to see at the street level is that fentanyl is being mixed in with many of the other drugs,” Lt. Shannon Barney said. “It’s showing up all over the place. ... There are a lot of people dying, so it is alarming.”

Across the state, there were 429 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2017, a 57% increase from 2016, according to the latest figures in a report by the California Department of Health. The report tracks opioid overdose deaths and usage rates on a daily basis and distributes the information to individual county health departments statewide.

Mendocino and Lake counties were ranked in 2017 as having the third- and fourth-highest opioid overdose death rates in California - 19.3 people per 100,000 in Mendocino, according to the state health department data. In Lake County, the comparable death rate was 17.02 people per 100,000 and in Sonoma County the rate was much lower at 5.99 people per 100,000. Deputies in Lake County started carrying Narcan in September.

Other police departments in the North Bay also have trained and equipped officers with Narcan to combat overdose deaths. In Sonoma County, at least Petaluma, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa law enforcement agencies started using the antidote last year. Rohnert Park’s officers started using it in 2017, and are believed to be the first police department in the county to use the opioid reversal medication.

In September, Santa Rosa Police Department officers started carrying Narcan and so far have used it 12 times including on a 14-year-old boy, Sgt. Christopher Mahurin said.

Police in Santa Rosa initially bought 400 doses of medication, which cost about $15,000, for about 100 officers who carry it, Mahurin said.

What has surprised him most is how often city police need the opioid reversal antidote in the field and the frequency that officers come in contact with heroin cut with fentanyl.

“Back when I first started about 13 years ago, I never really had issues with heroin,” Mahurin said. “Now we are seeing it on a daily basis.”

Last year, there were 285 calls reporting opioid drug overdoses to Santa Rosa police, more than double the 107 calls in 2014. So far this year, there have been about 90 such calls.

Determining the role of law enforcement in the face of this opioid epidemic is challenging, Mahurin said.

“My fears are how the community as a whole is going to end it,” he said.

In Mendocino County, Buffey Wright, program specialist with the local health department, took the lead on working with the Sheriff’s Office to combat the problem.

“We had a 22-year-old and a few others under 25 that overdosed in the last year and a half,” she said. “It’s very hard to talk about those things, and very discouraging.”

Sydney Brown, who along with Wright works with the Safe Rx Mendocino Opioid Coalition, said trauma from multiple fires and a growing poverty gap in recent years in the county has plagued residents, causing many to turn to drugs. The organization tries to connect those struggling with addiction to affordable treatment options.

“Without access to transportation, how can people hold down a job or attend treatment programs?” Brown said.

Wright hopes that by conducting more outreach to rural residents and connecting people with health partners that the opioid overdose trend eventually will decline.

“The biggest problem we are fighting against is the stigma of addiction and mental health problems,” Wright said. “We have to convince people that all life matters no matter what they are doing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or

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