To combat the ongoing scourge of fentanyl and attempt to prevent a rising death rate connected to the synthetic drug, federal and local authorities today initiated a ``Death in Disguise'' drug awareness campaign in Riverside.
"It's the number one cause of death (in the United States) among those 18 to 45 years old," U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada said during a news briefing at the Riverside County
District Attorney's Office. "It's a public health crisis. It's imperative that we take action."
Estrada was joined by D.A. Mike Hestrin, San Bernardino County Assistant District Attorney Simon Umscheid, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Bill Bodner and Steve Filson, whose adult daughter died from fentanyl poisoning.
"Fentanyl changes everything," Filson said. "Fentanyl has flooded our society. Added to other drugs, the risk of death is ever present."
Filson's daughter, Jessica, ingested a fatal dose of fentanyl, as did her boyfriend, in January 2020. The couple thought they were taking pure cocaine, but it was laced with fentanyl, according to Filson, a spokesman for the nonprofit StopTheVoid.org. The organization promotes educational programs that raise awareness about fentanyl exposure risks.
The nonprofit utilizes video messaging to highlight the potential consequences of using street drugs and knockoff pharmaceuticals.
The new Death in Disguise campaign, sponsored by the DEA, is an outgrowth of the agency's "One Pill Can Kill" awareness effort. At the center of the campaign is a 30-second public service announcement depicting a family impacted by a fentanyl poisoning.
It's intended to fuel conversations between youths and their parents, students and teachers, as well as others who have access to illicit drugs.
Riverside County agencies, led by the Department of Public Health and District Attorney's Office, initiated a similar campaign, FacesOfFentanyl.net, in October. That undertaking, too, features PSAs. However, the web portal additionally provides resources that are available to all residents.
Both Bodner and Umscheid acknowledged facts long established by the DEA and other law enforcement agencies -- that the flow of fentanyl originates from south of the border. Bodner specifically referenced the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico.
Concerned residents, including Matt Capelouto of Temecula, whose 20- year-old daughter Alexandra died after ingesting counterfeit Oxycodone laced with fentanyl in 2019, have pointed to the insecure border with Mexico as the principal source of the fentanyl influx over the last few years.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures, since fiscal year 2020-21, nearly 5 million border crossers have been apprehended. The tally does not account for the number who may have slipped by undetected.
"We are seizing incredible amounts of drugs coming across the border," Estrada said. "There's a huge amount coming across because there's so much out there."
Bodner called the border an "incredibly complex" issue to which there are no easy solutions. Reps. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, and Darrell Issa, R- Temecula, have both criticized the Biden administration for what they've described as a deficit of border enforcement, contributing to the fentanyl pipeline and other crimes. The pair joined in establishing a congressional Fentanyl Caucus last year.
"This epidemic must be stopped," Estrada said. "It requires our full attention. Those who peddle in this poison will be held accountable."
He noted federal sentencing guidelines provide a mandatory 20-year sentence for anyone convicted of selling fentanyl that culminates in a fatal overdose.
Hestrin said the D.A.'s office continues to take a "tough stance (on fentanyl distribution), holding those accountable who are poisoning our residents."
Since the winter of 2021, prosecutors have filed 20 second-degree murder complaints in connection with fentanyl poisonings, he said.
According to public safety officials, there were 415 fentanyl-related deaths countywide last year. In 2021, there were just over 400 -- a 200-fold increase from 2016, when there were two documented poisonings.
Check out a live map of overdose deaths in Riverside County
Statistics published last May by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed there were roughly 108,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2021, and fentanyl poisoning accounted for over 70,000 of them.
The synthetic opioid is manufactured in overseas labs, including in China, and it can be 80-100 times more potent than morphine, mixed into any number of street narcotics and prescription drugs, without a user knowing what he or she is consuming. Ingestion of only two milligrams can be fatal.