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In the wake of four fentanyl overdose deaths in San Diego County in 24 hours last week, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer issued a public safety alert for drug users to be aware that a lethal strain of fentanyl designed to look like oxycodone is being sold on the streets to unwitting buyers and the price may be the buyer’s life.

Brewer also warned that the fentanyl crisis is raging here as border seizures, prosecutions and overdoses are on pace to hit all-time highs in San Diego County at the end of 2019.

Fentanyl-related deaths are rapidly climbing to unprecedented levels. The Medical Examiner’s Office reports 50 confirmed fentanyl-related overdose deaths so far this year, plus another 28 suspected but yet-to-be confirmed cases with four months remaining in the year. Should this trend continue for the remainder of 2019, the death toll could potentially reach 130, which would amount to a 47 percent increase over last year’s total of 90 deaths, and a staggering 787 percent hike over five years ago when there were 15. The victims are overwhelmingly male, and the average age is 36, with the youngest 18 and the oldest 66.

Federal authorities, led by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations, have confiscated an estimated 533 kilograms – or 1,175 pounds – of illicit fentanyl at and near the international border so far this year. That’s more than half a ton. Just four years ago, authorities seized a fraction of that – only 30 kilograms.  In addition, there has been a record number of seizures involving counterfeit blue pills labeled M-30 that contain fentanyl.

The DEA is working in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies in San Diego to ensure the most effective overdose death investigations and prosecutions.  DEA is actively investigating fatal overdose deaths that occur in the San Diego County and has established an Overdose Response Group, which consists law enforcement from DEA, SDPD, Homeland Security Investigations, California Department of Health Care Services and FBI.  The goal of this specialized group is to identify the distributors of these deadly drugs that are bringing heartbreak to our communities.

Fentanyl is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin and so dangerous that in its purest form, even a tiny amount touching the skin can be deadly. According to law enforcement reports, the price of fentanyl in 2019 – whether in powder form and pill form – is declining, meaning that both forms are readily available in our community.

Users are also ordering up fentanyl from the so-called “Dark Web” like they would order something from Amazon. The drug is being purchased online and sent directly to customers by mail or express delivery service in the U.S.

In November, U.S. Attorney Brewer, DEA, HIDTA and the San Diego Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force are sponsoring a Western States Opioid Summit that will bring together hundreds of professionals from multiple disciplines to provide training and best practices to combat the fentanyl scourge.  Surgeon General Jerome Adams will address the group.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and its partners created a local Fentanyl Working Group in early 2017, which meets quarterly.  This is a multi-dimensional group that includes local, state and federal investigative agencies, toxicologists, the Medical Examiner’s Office, DEA Lab Chemists, first responders, plus local, county and federal prosecutors. This collaboration is a significant step in working together to promote streamlined investigations.