The Riverside and Orange County district attorney’s offices are cracking down on fentanyl dealers. Those who distribute the deadly drug can now be charged with murder if someone dies after ingesting or being exposed to it.
Riverside County district attorney Mike Hestrin says the fentanyl crisis has escalated out of control in recent years. He says in 2016, there were two fentanyl-related deaths in the county. This year, they expect to see between 500-600 deaths.
“We’re investigating fentanyl deaths not like overdoses anymore...but like potential murder cases,” he said.
He says fentanyl deaths are up by more than 800% in the last five years.
“We’re seeing fentanyl pouring into our region. It’s an incredibly lethal substance,” he said.
Hestrin says all it takes is 2 milligrams of fentanyl to kill.
“To give your viewers some sense...there are 5,000 milligrams in a teaspoon. Two milligrams is fatal. There’s no safe way to use this drug," he said.
He says deaths have skyrocketed in part, because fentanyl is cheap to produce and it's now being found in all kinds of drugs: from cocaine, methamphetamines, even anti-anxiety or sleeping medications.
He says the cartels now have the ability to create pills that look identical to regulated pills like Percocet or Valium — citing the case of one 21-year-old boy who died after taking Percocet from a friend. Neither of them knew it was laced with fentanyl.
“And his friend said, hey you know...take this...but just take half. Bite it in half and it will help you sleep. Well he did that and he never woke up," said Hestrin.
He says the DEA estimates that up to 40% of counterfeit pills on the street right now contain a fatal dose.
“This is why we’re losing so many young people" he said.
He says his office is currently prosecuting 10 cases with murder charges for fentanyl deaths.
In February, 22-year-old Joseph Costanza was arrested — he was the first to be charged with second-degree murder in the county after an 18-year-old overdosed on fentanyl.
He faces up to 17 years in prison for the drug-related counts and then an additional 15 years to life for the second-degree murder count.
It's an aggressive stance the DAs office hopes sends a message.
“It’s my fervent hope that we can begin to bring down the deaths in our county,” he said.
Hestrin added he urges the public to be aware of the dangerous and increasing prevalence of fentanyl in the community: “You have to tell your kids, your nieces, your loved ones...what I’ve told my children. You cannot take a single pill. Not one. Because you’re going to lose your life. If you didn’t get that pill from a doctor, you have to assume it contains a fatal dose of fentanyl.”