Oregon sees third highest increase in synthetic opioid deaths nationwide

Heroin fentanyl pills. (DEA)

A new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is the nation's deadliest drug for the first time– surpassing heroin.

In 2017, about 47,600 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States. The CDC determined synthetic opioids were involved in 60 percent of those deaths, a 45 percent increase from the year before.

The nation-wide epidemic has hit home in Oregon, where officials saw a 91 percent increase in synthetic opioid deaths between 2016 and 2017.

"It's the number one drug problem that we're facing in Jackson County right now," said Lt. Mike Budreau with the Medford Police Department.

REALTED| Fentanyl could be behind overdose spike in Jackson County

According to MPD, the soaring statistics are partly due to fentanyl's strength, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The department said drug dealers mix the dangerous, but cheaper, synthetic with heroin to produce a deadly concoction. Most of the time, he said, the buyer is none the wiser.

"It's not being sold on the street as fentanyl," said Lt. Mike Budreau. "It's being sold on the street as heroin. And then the user is not really aware of how powerful this stuff is, or how deadly it is."

Budreau said there have been 23 overdose deaths in Jackson County so far this year. The exact number involving fentanyl is still unknown, as some cases are still under investigation, he said.

But he recalled a two or three week period during the summer when 10 people died from opioid overdoses one after the other.

"We linked about half of those deaths to fentanyl related incidents," said Budreau.

MPD said many of the drugs they see make their way to Oregon through California along the I-5, which could be part of the reason why they're so prevalent in Jackson County.

Police are trying to tackle the supply chain, but likened getting dealers off the streets to a game of cat and mouse.

"The reality is we'll send someone to prison for 15 years, but then there's someone else willing to risk that sentence because there's so much money involved," said Budreau.

Officers' second line of defense is treatment options for users.

"If somebody does get addicted, they need to have a way out," said the lieutenant. "It should be as easy for them to get treatment as it is for them to get drugs out on the street."

"That's not always the case," he added.

Medford Police are currently pointing opioid users to a website called StaySafeOregon.com. It addresses everything from the risks of opioid use, to ways to manage chronic pain and how to contact local treatment and recovery centers.

While local law enforcement doesn't want to encourage drug use, they are cautioning users to have naloxone nearby.

Naloxone is a life-saving drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose. MPD officers carry the drug on them, and have seen an increase in the number of times they've had to use it.

They've seen an increase in the number of times they've used it in the past four years.

Officers deployed naloxone 11 times in 2015, eight in 2016 and 15 times in 2017.

So far this year, they've used it 27 times.

Max's Mission is a local organization that distributes naloxone for free every month. Their next distribution date is Jan. 23 at the Medford Library from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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