Opinion: San Diego County’s emergency declaration targeting fentanyl will save lives

County supervisors’ decision needs vigorous support of entire community, starting with local schools

With other pain-relief medicines being used far more often, fentanyl was mostly a footnote in the medical world in most of the decades since its 1960 invention by Belgian physician Paul Janssen — a revered figure in pharmacological circles who developed pioneering drug treatments for schizophrenia, muscle spasms and other ailments. But over the past 15 years, legally prescribed fentanyl and illegal knockoffs of fentanyl and similar synthetic opiates — all extraordinarily addictive and far stronger than morphine — have emerged as one of the worst public health scourges in U.S. history. Cheaply and easily made, fentanyl is often used by narcotics manufacturers to spike the potency of other illegal drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, as well as counterfeit versions of legal drugs — without buyers being aware.

The grim result: Fentanyl and like drugs were responsible for nearly two-thirds of last year’s overdose deaths, and drug overdose deaths account for over one-third of all unintentional injury deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an all-time high of over 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020 — and a year later reported drug overdose deaths set a new record of 107,622 in 2021.

Given this backdrop, the initial reaction to the county Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote on Tuesday to declare the illegal use and distribution of fentanyl to be a public health crisis is likely to be, “What took you so long?” With fentanyl deaths in San Diego County going from 33 in 2016 to an estimated 800-plus in 2021, the declaration seems long overdue — especially given the fact that border officials report fentanyl smuggling across the southern border is far more common here than elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Supervisors Jim Desmond and Terra Lawson-Remer deserve praise for pushing the issue to the forefront. The board’s decision means the county will ramp up fentanyl treatment programs and efforts to educate the public about the immense risks it poses. This should also lead to greater distribution of naloxone, an easily administered drug that can reverse potentially fatal opioid overdoses in minutes. The county’s campaign should win the entire community’s support — especially in local schools — because the stakes are so high. Twelve of last year’s fentanyl overdose deaths were teens under 17. It is the leading cause of death of people 18 to 45 countywide and countrywide.

With fentanyl becoming ubiquitous in narcotics manufacturing — with fentanyl-laced products readily available on social media — with accidental fentanyl deaths a now-common event — this emergency declaration is an important step to save lives. As Desmond notes, one pill can kill and often does.