Jan Blom knew little about fentanyl when his 17-year-old son Linus went to take a nap at their Los Gatos home in July 2020.
By mid-morning, Blom discovered Linus’ lifeless body in bed. The cause of death? The Percocet pill, laced with a powerful synthetic opioid that has fueled an unprecedented spike in drug-related deaths across California, is now targeting its young people. Last year, fentanyl was responsible for a staggering fifth of deaths in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, a total of more than six times the number it killed just three years ago.
For most of his life, Linus was a star student and an avid high school wrestler who longed to compete for the national team in his native Finland. But he began taking pills he found online, his father believes, as a way to cope with the intense pressure to succeed academically in Silicon Valley.
Suddenly, Linus fell victim to a drug 50 times stronger than heroin that has exploded across the country in the last half decade but largely spared the West Coast during its initial surge.
“It’s hard to realize that your own son has become a data point,” Blom said.
Fentanyl overdoses are taking their toll not only in tragically familiar places like San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin, but also in the bedrooms of teenagers in some of the Bay Area’s most luxurious neighborhoods. Increasingly, users have no idea that the drugs they are taking include fentanyl.
Schools are being stocked with overdose-reversing drugs as a precaution, and experts are advising teens who buy illegal painkillers and study drugs to also buy test strips that detect if the pills are laced with fentanyl.
“We’re not trying to scare you,” said Chelsea Shover, an assistant professor of epidemiology and health services research at UCLA who co-authored a 2020 study on the spread of fentanyl on the West Coast. “But we’re trying to tell you what’s going on now and it’s different than what was going on a few years ago.”
The scourge of California’s dramatic rise in fentanyl will manifest itself in 2020 as a startling spike in the state’s death records alongside another now-familiar record: COVID-19.
Fentanyl overdoses killed about 4,000 people in California in 2020 — more than double the previous year — as trade routes from Mexico tightened and the unusually cheap drug began to infiltrate local drug markets.
And last year, for the first time, California’s death rate from all drug overdoses surpassed that of lung cancer and ranked just below hypertensive heart disease. The increase was almost entirely due to fentanyl. It killed a record 5,722 Californians in 2021, according to preliminary data from the California Department of Vital Statistics. That’s more than the estimated 4,258 people who died in car crashes on California roads and more than double the 2,548 killed in homicides.
Among teenagers aged 15 to 19, opioid-related deaths more than quadrupled from 2018 to 2021. For 20- to 24-year-olds, this rate has increased almost sevenfold. The rise in deaths has come even as overall rates of drug use among teenagers have remained steady, experts say.
But here’s what’s really telling: Before the rise of fentanyl, the total annual deaths of Californians ages 15 to 24 typically hovered around 3,000. As of 2020, that number has skyrocketed to nearly 4,000 deaths per year. And fentanyl accounted for more than 750 of those deaths in each of the last two years.
“This is going to keep happening until we actually respond,” Shover said. “The idea that one pill can kill, now it’s true … it changes what we have to tell kids.”
Some counties have begun taking action as the fentanyl crisis deepens across the Bay Area.
Last month, Santa Clara County stocked up on Narcan, an over-the-counter nasal spray that can prevent serious fentanyl overdoses from becoming fatal. Kits are being sent to schools across the county and teachers are being trained to administer Narcan.
“We don’t want to have a situation where we have an unresponsive student … and we don’t have the tools to save that person’s life,” said Santa Clara County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mary Dewan.
She said students consume study drugs like Adderall and common painkillers like Percocet that they buy from unlicensed sellers on the Internet. Little do they know that these pills are now often laced with fentanyl.
“If you’re buying a pill on the street, yes, it’s probably fentanyl,” Shover said. “Fentanyl until proven otherwise.
That’s why Shover and other experts recommend fentanyl test strips, which can be purchased on Amazon for less than $10 a kit, to detect if fentanyl is present in other types of illegal drugs. The sale of fentanyl test strips was only legalized in California this past August when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill authored by Orange County Assemblywoman Laurie Davies, a Republican. Previously, test strips were classified as drug paraphernalia, and some states still ban them.
Teenagers are far from the only victims of fentanyl. Opioid-related deaths among adults ages 30 to 34 will hit a record high of about 33 per 100,000 in California in 2021, the highest of any age group.
Every Bay Area county is also seeing an increase in overdoses. San Francisco remains at zero, with almost twice the opioid death rate of the Bay Area’s next worst-hit county, Sonoma.
In Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, opioid-related deaths more than doubled from 2018 to 2021 when fentanyl entered the market. In Alameda, it more than tripled. In Marin, it increased almost fivefold.
Edward Liang, who oversees the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking Team, says Interstate 5 has become a fentanyl trafficking route for Mexican cartels that bring fentanyl powder and raw materials through Mexico and into the Gulf. Flat.
Cartels are using some raw materials that are traded across the border to make fentanyl pills in the Bay Area.
Liang says the reason cartels are so interested in penetrating the fentanyl market is that the costs associated with producing fentanyl are low compared to other drugs like heroin, which require poppy plants and plenty of resources to produce. Because fentanyl is much more potent than other drugs, dealers also make more money from small doses.
“They’re targeting school kids and the homeless,” Blom said. “Everyone is a target.”
Law enforcement is trying to catch up. This month, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that the Fentanyl Task Force has seized more than 4 million pills and nearly 900 pounds of fentanyl powder since April 2021. And federal prosecutors in San Jose this summer busted a drug ring, including a Mexican pharmacist, linked to the overdose death of a Monterey County man.
But fentanyl sales are popping up even in the most guarded places: Inmates from Riverside County to Mendocino have overdosed on fentanyl pills smuggled into prisons.
Most teenagers only need to search on apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
In early 2020, the Bloms were so concerned about Linus’s drug use that they sent him abroad to an international school in Finland, where they hoped he would stop using the pills.
But the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. Linus’ school was completely online and his favorite sport, wrestling, was banned as a precaution against COVID-19.
As a result, Linus continued to self-medicate, Blom said.
He eventually moved back with his family to Los Gatos. They tried to get him outpatient care to cure his addiction. But they were told that everything was full. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some clinics to temporarily close or limit services, Blom said, creating a backlog of patients.
One clinic that had put Linus on a waiting list called months after his death to offer him a spot.
After Linus’ death, Blom began actively pushing the county to take the fentanyl threat more seriously. He joined the Santa Clara County Fentanyl Task Force and spoke about his son’s death.
He says he would be satisfied if all his activism stopped just one death. Now he knows more about fentanyl than any parent should know.
“It’s so tragic,” Blom said as Linus’ six-year-old brother Lucas fidgeted nearby. “We thought he was safe at home.