Fentanyl, a potent opioid already responsible for thousands of deaths nationwide, is increasingly showing up in drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine in California, the Los Angeles Times reports. The white powder, a lethal substance 50 times stronger than heroin, is sometimes mixed into other opioids to produce a stronger high. Now its presence in non-opioids has public health experts worried that California may be staring down a new dimension of the deadly epidemic. Officials suspect that three men who died in downtown Los Angeles late last month had snorted cocaine laced with fentanyl. “We don’t know whether this is an anomaly, or whether it’s a bellwether of something that’s about to hit,” said UCLA Prof. Steve Shoptaw, who studies substance abuse. Although California has avoided the worst of the opioid epidemic, the drug market is dominated by stimulants, the drugs that have just started to be mixed with fentanyl.
Fentanyl deaths in California tripled between 2016 and 2017. Fentanyl, which can kill even in small doses, is dangerous for experienced opioid users, and even more so for people with no tolerance for opioids. Experts don’t know whether dealers are purposely or accidentally tainting drugs with fentanyl. Fentanyl has been prescribed as a painkiller for cancer patients since the 1960s. An illicit version can be easily mixed with other drugs without being noticed. Several people in San Francisco recently died from consuming fentanyl with methamphetamine, counterfeit Xanax or crack cocaine. There have been reports elsewhere of fentanyl in the rave drug MDMA. “We aren’t seeing the volume or the impact that … is happening on the East Coast, but we know that could change,” said Rachael Kagan of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. “We’re really on high alert.” California has the seventh lowest drug-overdose death rate in the nation.