40 pounds of suspected meth, coke and other drugs seized

In an October 2018 bust near Delano, authorities seized more than 40 pounds of suspected methamphetamine, approximately 1,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills produced with fentanyl, a quarter-pound of cocaine, two stolen semi-automatic handguns, and armor-piercing ammunition.

When prices drop and supply increases, even in the face of steady demand, the consumer benefits.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. One is when the commodity in question is killing people.

Just such a bonanza of availability, however, could soon be the case with illicitly manufactured street opioids, which, like opioids in general, present a persistent threat to the health and well-being of communities across the country. That's particularly the case in Kern County, where overdose rates are a staggering 50 percent above the state average and quadruple in two specific pockets of despair.

Kern County's opioid overdose rate of 8.5 per 100,000 population dwarfs the state rate of 5.2, according to the California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard, a collaboration of four state agencies and nonprofits. Two areas of the county — a portion of the poverty-afflicted Kern River Valley and the section of east Bakersfield roughly between Bakersfield College and Old Town Kern — exceed 22 per 100,000. Overdose rates in the Latino-majority farm town of Lamont are more than 20 per 100,000, and central-south Bakersfield (93304) and working-class Oildale are not far behind.

Poverty is a predictive indicator but not an infallible one: The overdose rate in the relatively affluent southwest Bakersfield ZIP code of 93309 is more than double the state average.

And now a new threat looms — fentanyl, reportedly manufactured in China, packaged for distribution in Mexico and mixed, often unadvertised, with other street drugs.

It's not that local law enforcement agencies are being deluged with fentanyl at the moment. They're not. Drugs are flowing through Kern County — just Friday, an interagency task force arrested two men in south Bakersfield in possession of 5 pounds of cocaine and almost 2 pounds of heroin with a combined street value of nearly a quarter-million dollars — but fentanyl has been identified only a few times in such busts. It's just that the stuff is among the deadliest substances out there. A little goes a long way when it comes to overdose statistics.

Fentanyl is turning up in combination with other drugs — and killing people who may not even know it's present in the pill they're swallowing, the powder they're snorting or the vial they're injecting. The pain-numbing drug is administered to cancer patients by way of a prescription patch, but the illicit street version is so strong it can grab an arresting deputy who gets too close and knock him off his feet.

Across the U.S., opioids kill 130 people day, some of them right here. Local numbers are tough to come by because the most recent figures are for all drug overdoses, not just for opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers. But we know this: 75 people died from opioid deaths in Kern County in 2017, and 251 died from all drug overdoses in 2018.

In 2017, opioids sent 165 people to Kern County emergency centers and 101 to local hospitals.

Local programs have sometimes struggled to keep up with addiction levels, and law enforcement is challenged as well.

The Kern County Sheriff’s Office has been distributing the opioid-overdose prevention drug Narcan (naloxone) to deputies since 2016, and Sheriff Donny Youngblood reports they’ve saved at least seven lives by administering the potent nasal spray. The Arvin Police Department now carries Narcan, as well; the Bakersfield Police Department does not, although agency officials have researched the possibility.

The county oversees a program that administers the synthetic opioid methadone, which tamps down withdrawal symptoms, to addicts trying to kick; the drug is formulated to block rather than engage the pleasure centers that other opiates activate. Four licensed methadone clinics — three in Bakersfield and one in Delano — treat local patients through two state-licensed, state-certified contracted providers, Aegis Treatment Centers of Canoga Park and American Health Services of Santa Clarita. (It bears noting that the communities of the Kern River Valley, including Lake Isabella, Weldon and Wofford Heights — which has the highest per capita addiction rate in Kern County — do not have a clinic.)

Between those four locations, the county can treat up to 1,605 patients at a time. As of Thursday, 1,510 slots were filled with recovering addicts who receive regular, mandatory counseling and a daily cup of liquid methadone.

"We currently don't have a waitlist but it varies daily," said Ana Olvera, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves as the program administrator for Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services' substance use disorder division. "People show up at the door and say, 'I need this.' Ten people might want to start on the same day and if we're full, we may tell five to come back the next day. We've had that happen."

People may need treatment because of addiction to any number of opioids, illicitly manufactured, illegally obtained or legally prescribed, including Vicodin, codeine, heroin, morphine, Percocet and OxyContin.

Perhaps surprisingly, the age groups suffering the highest rates of overdoses in Kern County are 50-54 and 55-59, possibly suggesting that legally prescribed opioids are killing people as effectively as illegally manufactured opioids — or, more likely, prescription opioids are creating addictions that street opioids must eventually satisfy.

Legally prescribed drugs, said Sgt. Mark Warren of the Sheriff’s Office narcotics investigations division, are also paving the road for younger addicts-in-waiting.

"One path to addiction starts in high school, where kids are getting exposed to their parents' pills, or someone who has had a surgery is prescribed these pills," he said. "But it's very expensive to buy hydrocodone on the street, and so they're going to get it however they can get it — and it's usually like this."

By "this," Warren means criminal operations like the one he helped bust near Delano last October as part of that same multiagency task force: In addition to 40 pounds of methamphetamine and a quarter-pound of cocaine, they seized 1,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills produced with fentanyl. Four men were arrested.

Yes, fentanyl cases are still somewhat rare. Over the past 12 months, fentanyl has turned up in only about 10 cases analyzed by the Kern Regional Crime Laboratory — in counterfeit pharmaceuticals, variously colored powders and sticky, brown substances similar to tar heroin. That's just a fraction of the crime lab's 1,300 drug screenings over that period, according to crime lab supervisor Tammi Noe.

But the incidence of fentanyl-spiked street opioids is most likely to go up before it goes down.

"The potency is increasing," Warren said. "And drug prices have really dropped. More are readily available."

Is Kern County as prepared as it ought to be? Certainly people like Warren and Olvera are working to make it so. But if an onslaught is coming, we need to be ready for it.

Know someone — perhaps yourself  — with a dependency issue? Call the Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Crisis Hotline at 866-266-4898. Suspect someone of trafficking in opioids? Call 661-392-6003 or visit wetip.com.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(6) comments

Stephen

Opioids are cheap and easy to get.

Compare that to long developed old life saving drugs with no recent development costs that are priced in the stratosphere, Take it or leave it attitude of Pharma, an attitude as long as we delude ourselves into thinking pharmaceuticals are a market item like choosing to buy a TV or not.

Fram Smith

ICE 's own data show that 80 to 90 % of all drugs come through our ports of entry. In addition, there are these pesky things called "oceans". The one on the western part of the United States is call the Pacific Ocean, and it is roughly 2600 miles long. Along the United States southern boundary is an extension of the Atlantic Ocean called the Gulf of Mexico. It is 1700 mile in length in the U.S.. The Atlantic Ocean is very roughly 2500 miles in length along our eastern coast. Our boundary to the north with what use to be one of closest allies, Canada, is over 3000 miles long. If a Great Wall of China were constructed from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas, it would not stop the flood of drugs into this country. The real threat to a whole generation are a kaleidoscope of new synthetic opioids being manufactured in purity and qualities that would impress even Walter White. And alot of it is made in China. It is rumored, not verified mine you, that North Korea has superlabs to make synthetic opioid counterfeit prescription drugs with quality control issues. They are in desperate need of hard currency and it would be right up Kim's wheelhouse. Maybe the President can ask him when he meets up with him in Vietnam. In any case, we are lucky to inspect 10 % of that which passes through our ports. The American people are ready to spend billions to completely modernize our ports of entry by using technology to literally inspect all items coming in to the country. Pay Border Patrol agents more and pay their moving expenses when you move them to new locations. Double the size of the Coast Guard, and give them state of the art technology and a modern fleet. Use our Intelligence Services to locate the megalabs and take preemptive measures to render them inoperative. We could follow the money, and arrest those who launder drug money , into , for example, American real estate. We could freeze funds and assets from misbegotten gains. The are many real solutions to this synthetic opioid plague . I have presented, just a few.

JSmith

Hey hey don't start injecting common sense into the border wall argument.

Vico17

Honest question: People who live in poverty turn to drugs to alleviate their world situation (escape from reality), or do they end up in poverty BECAUSE they chose to spend their money on drugs (instead of books or training lets say)? Coming from someone who has never touched illicit drugs, other than an occasional beer or shot of whiskey. And, when does this need to escape from reality begin? I am trying to remember all my friends in high school and where each ended up in life. I am sure the true nature of this problem is much deeper, but those who chose to "light up" back then are now living in these areas mentioned in the list above, or are no longer with us.

Boris25

Gee, where do you think the majority of these drugs come from? If you guessed Mexico, you win a prize! Build the darn wall, hire more Boarder Patrol agents and use technology to help stop the flow of drugs from south of the boarder.

Tam Daras

Trump voters tend to be rather sophomoric when it come to factual information. Read the explanation courtesy of Fram.

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