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Rising fentanyl-related overdoses in Northern Nevada reflect national crisis

Packaged methamphetamine and fentanyl pills seized by agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during Operation Crystal Shield in September 2020.
Courtesy U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Packaged methamphetamine and fentanyl pills seized by agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during Operation Crystal Shield in September 2020.

Sheriff’s deputies in Washoe County, Nev., responded to two fentanyl overdoses in a 12-hour span earlier this month.

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In one case, a baby who was exposed to fentanyl was given Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. In the other, a 24-year-old had already died by the time officers arrived.

The incidents reflect a lethal surge in fentanyl overdoses around the West. The powerful synthetic opioid is increasingly being found in other drugs, often without users’ knowledge – and it’s driving a national overdose crisis.

“This is quickly becoming an epidemic in Washoe County, and it is tragic,” Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said in a statement. “It is literally killing people.”

Fentanyl took longer to arrive in the Mountain West than in other parts of the country.

In Northern Nevada, its use had been steadily growing for years, but the amount of fentanyl in the community has spiked in the last six months, according to addiction recovery specialists. According to Balaam, it’s now the second-deadliest drug in Washoe County. Meanwhile, in Colorado, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids more than doubled last year, and in New Mexico, opioids – including fentanyl – caused about two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2019.

Danica Pierce is a licensed clinical social worker and a drug and alcohol counselor with Northern Nevada HOPES, a nonprofit health center. She says COVID-19 is partially to blame for the recent surge in overdoses because people in recovery were suddenly cut off from treatment and twelve-step programs.

“You have people who are isolated, people who lost their jobs,” she said. “The number one reason why people relapse is boredom.”

When someone starts using opioids again after taking a break, their tolerance is often lower. If they try to pick up where they left off, it can lead to an accidental overdose.

Pierce says she’s also seen higher numbers of new drug users – and fentanyl is increasingly showing up in other substances like methamphetamine or getting pressed into pills made to look like prescription drugs.

“We’ve had a lot of people that have come in and tested positive for, you know, methamphetamine and fentanyl – and then having just, like, no idea,” Pierce said.

Opioids restrict breathing during an overdose, which can lead to death. Fentanyl is especially risky because it can be 100 times stronger than morphine, so it only takes a tiny amount of it to kill.

The drug’s potency is appealing to some people who actively use opioids, says Eric Hare of The Life Change Center in Reno. So when they hear a certain product is causing overdoses, that can be a perverse incentive to seek it out.

“When they have a tolerance like that, that’s actually kind of a selling point to them,” Hare said. “Like, ‘Oh, that stuff is good.’ ”

Other users try to avoid it, however, because the high from fentanyl lasts only a couple of hours. That can lead them to use more to avoid withdrawals, further increasing the risk of overdose.

The Life Change Center offers recovery programs for those addicted to opioids, including medication-assisted treatments using drugs like methadone and buprenorphine. They also distribute Narcan to patients and community members. Hare, the organization’s operations director, says demand for the life-saving medication has gone up as overdose deaths have risen.

“It can happen in the bathroom in the casino; it can happen in someone’s car on their lunch break at a worksite,” he said. “I think everybody has somehow been touched by this.”

Another tactic is to distribute fentanyl test strips to people who actively use drugs, so they can make sure they’re not taking a tainted dose. Pierce with Northern Nevada HOPES says her clinic has been distributing them through its harm reduction program.

“You never know what you’re actually getting because substances that are manufactured change hands so many times before it gets to an end user,” she said.

But test strips aren’t available everywhere. In New Mexico, Utah and Idaho, they’re considered illegal drug paraphernalia. Nevada just legalized them during its last legislative session earlier this year.

Beyond the immediate impacts of Narcan and test strips, Hare says a community response is the best approach to address the overdose crisis in the West.

“If we reduce the stigma of addiction more, I think that more people will seek help,” he said. “I think that ultimately will get us through this.”

In October, President Joe Biden’s administration proposed permanently classifying fentanyl as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, a move that could mean defendants face harsher punishments. Advocates oppose the move, saying it would exacerbate racial disparities in enforcement.

For more information about opioid addiction and where to find Narcan in Washoe County, visit www.thelifechangecenter.org.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Bert Johnson
Bert is KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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