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Powerful drug behind increase in Petaluma overdoses

Wendi Thomas doesn’t have an exact number, but the nursing director for Petaluma Valley Hospital said her staff has recently seen a significant spike in opioid overdoses, a troubling trend linked to new and more potent drugs on the streets.

For her, the most disturbing aspect is that the age of the patients are getting “younger and younger and younger.”

“The staff and physicians of the emergency room, for sure, feel like they’ve seen more overdoses in the last month than (they) have in the last five years,” Thomas said. “They’re not all resulting in death or admission to the hospital, but they feel like they’re certainly seeing more. There’s a concern that a bad batch of heroin is on the streets.”

Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons echoed that sentiment. In the past six months, the police department has received 21 drug overdose calls resulting in four deaths, including two deaths just last week.

And those are just the totals for his department, Lyons said. That doesn’t include users that went straight to the hospital or called the fire department or paramedics.

“It’s way more than the numbers we have,” he said.

While heroin and prescription painkillers are at the center of the country’s opioid crisis, fentanyl, a powerful pain medication, has started to pop up more frequently in Petaluma, the lieutenant said. Police suspected last week’s overdose death involving a 16-year-old boy was likely caused by Xanax laced with fentanyl, highlighting a practice that’s helped the powerful synthetic drug spread more rapidly.

“We had heard that it was sort of making its way out west from the East Coast,” Lyons said. “There was a lot of cases on the East Coast, and I definitely think it’s here now. We’re just starting to see more … and they’re using it to combine with other narcotics. It’s just making a lethal cocktail for them.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and as much as 100 times more powerful than morphine. In its purest form, as little as two milligrams can be a lethal dose for most people, and its high potency greatly increases the risk of an overdose.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of law enforcement encounters with fentanyl more than doubled in the U.S. from 5,343 in 2014 to 13,882 in 2015, and the crisis continues to expand in size and scope.

The Petaluma Police Department announced on Monday that all officers will now be equipped with Naloxone, an anti-opioid medication used to treat overdoses, after partnering with the Petaluma Fire Department to receive additional first aid training.

“Sometimes we get there first before the ambulance or paramedics get there,” Lyons said. “If we can administer first, especially when time is very crucial … we hopefully will save more lives.”

Administering lifesaving drugs is meant to be the last resort, though, and advocates say more prevention programs are needed to ensure the Naloxone stays holstered. Nonprofits like Petaluma Parents Against Drugs (PPAD) are collaborating with local schools, law enforcement and health officials to take a proactive approach to combat the epidemic.

PPAD’s focus is on educating parents, whether their children are in high school or even elementary school where the window to gain traction is much wider.

But founders Heather Elliott-Hudson and Kathleen Stafford also admitted they’ve become frustrated by some of the “bureaucracy” holding back the initiatives they’ve been trying to push through the city.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t wanting to admit it’s going on,” Stafford said. “We know it’s going on. We’ve dealt with even students that come to us and other parents that come to us. We’re seeing huge trends of cocaine. Xanax has always been a big deal. Adderall is one of the top abused drugs that we’ve seen in our high schools and our colleges. … So we’re seeing it, and this fentanyl that’s happening – like that overdose that happened (last week) with the Xanax that was laced with fentanyl – that’s a big deal. That, we have not seen that before. We knew heroin was laced with fentanyl. We have not seen something like this.”

Petaluma City Schools assistant superintendent Dave Rose believes the spread of opioid abuse among teens has a lot to do with the cultural shift around substance use, drawing a direct line from marijuana legalization to the mindset that’s led more and more children to believe painkillers are OK since they’re legal.

“Are our students experimenting with those? Clearly they are,” Rose said, referring to a February report from the Press Democrat highlighting the rise of Xanax abuse at Sonoma County schools. “We feel very strongly that the gateway that starts is with lower-level substance abuse that comes from alcohol, marijuana and high risk-taking behaviors.”

Like PPAD, Petaluma City Schools is trying to get in front of the issue. The district recently enrolled in a nationwide program sponsored by the DEA called Operation Prevention, which uncovers organic opportunities to talk about opioids outside of traditional courses like health or P.E.

“We are doing an initial meeting with a group of teachers in different subject areas (this) week and we’re starting to look at those curriculum pieces and ways of trying to get it integrated into our classrooms,” Rose said.

Outside of classrooms, Thomas highlighted a number of other efforts the community is making to reduce access to narcotics.

In addition to the standardized prescribing guidelines established last year, Petaluma follows a Justice Department of California mandate to enter all controlled substance prescriptions into the CURES database, which provides oversight and monitors every prescription written for painkillers.

Petaluma Valley Hospital also partners with Petaluma Health Center, sending patients to their chronic pain program that extensively explores alternative treatments before prescribing an opioid, Thomas said.

“It’s having those courageous conversations,” she said. “It’s coming from a responsible prescribing situation. It’s not coming from (that) we want to call people out.”

The fear for Elliott-Hudson and Stafford, frustrated by their limitations as mothers with full-time careers, is that it’s going to take a rising death toll for city officials to dive into the issue.

“Deaths shouldn’t make a difference,” Elliott-Hudson said. “People talking should.”

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