BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — There’s a deadly drug on the streets of Bakersfield right now in amazing abundance. It’s fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that serves as a powerful painkiller useful in cases like advanced-stage cancer. But it has now been appropriated for the illegal drug trade.
And it’s killing people. 81,000 in the U.S. last year, including, according to the coroner’s office, at least 125 in Kern County. But it’s not simply that fentanyl is incredibly toxic. It’s that you might not know you’re buying fentanyl at all. Illegal drug operations routinely substitute fentanyl for other opiates such as oxycodone because it’s cheaper and easier to get from foreign suppliers.
Wuhan, China, a city we heard so much about last year for another reason, was the world’s fentanyl production capital until, ironically, the coronavirus pandemic that also originated in that city disrupted the drug’s distribution channels. Now Mexican cartels largely have taken over its manufacture and distribution.
And with Big Pharma on the hotseat, facing huge, multi-billion-dollar settlements for its role in the opioid crisis, leading to serious restrictions on the availability of prescribed opioids, demand has soared for the even-more-dangerous illicit versions.
Criminal drug makers manufacture realistic-looking oxycodone pills that may contain no oxycodone at all — just fentanyl mixed with other ingredients.
Users think they’re buying prescription name-brand drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, Norco and even non-opiates like Xanax. But lab results show the knockoffs that are killing people often contain little if any of those compounds.
That’s what killed Tyler Cabral, whose oxycodone addiction, fed by doctors trying to treat his pain, evolved — after the prescriptions dried up — into a fentanyl addiction he could satisfy only on the street. Tyler, 28, was one of 125 people who died from fentanyl-related overdoses in Kern County in 2020, according to the coroner’s office.
Fentanyl is also what killed 33-year-old Brooke Torres of Bakersfield, whose counterfeit Xanax, purchased off the street, contained a fatal dose of the synthetic opioid.
For Torres the tragic succession of events started about five years ago as she drove home from Fresno. The road disappeared in a winter fog so dense and impenetrable that the drive terrified her. The anxiety triggered by that trauma persisted, and persisted, to the point at which Brooke’s doctor prescribed her Paxil, and then Xanax.
Months later, according to Brooke’s mother Becky Torres, Brooke was still hooked on Xanax — and desperate to get off. Finally, a physician she’d met socially suggested three alternatives: the opioid painkiller oxycodone, of all things, as well as Norco and bars of Xanax. And, as happens all too often, Brooke’s use of oxy turned into yet another addiction.
That addiction placed a barrier between mother and daughter that Becky could not have previously imagined.
“My daughter … was funny (and) very witty,” Becky said. “We were, like, best friends. We did everything together.”
Everything including fighting Brooke’s drug problem.
“She was addicted to oxy. And then we put her into a rehab. Because she always wanted help. That’s when she came to me. She said, I’ve got to get off this.”
Thanks to Becky’s intervention there was some initial progress. She confronted Brooke’s doctor who, counter to what seemed like responsible treatment, to Becky’s way of thinking, continued to prescribe oxy. The doctor, cornered, relented and took Brooke off the prescription painkillers. But then came the unintended consequences.
“She started buying oxy off the street from a drug dealer,” the mother said. “And then he was giving her stuff — oxy laced with fentanyl. So, in 2018 she actually overdosed at the house. I was home.”
Brooke dashed out the door that day, oddly agitated, telling her mother she needed a fast-food taco — immediately. Instead she went to her dealer. When she returned, she was calm — at least at first.
“We ended up calling 911 and we rushed her to the hospital,” Becky said. “They shot her with Narcan and it brought her back to life. It was terrible.”
But a few months later, in September 2019, it happened again. Everyone had flown to Georgia for a family event — everyone except Brooke, who stayed behind because of her classes at CSUB. That night in Atlanta the family went to a movie — an action flick. Becky emerged beaming with the euphoric adrenaline of a happy ending. But then her mood changed.
“Something didn’t feel right. I called my neighbor and asked her to check on Brooke.” The neighbor told Becky, “Well the garage door is open and I can hear Coco barking but she is not coming to the door.”
“I just got this really weird feeling,” Becky said. “So, I called her back and said, ‘Can you call 911 for me?’”
Paramedics broke through the back door and found Brooke. They tried for 45 minutes to revive her. But it was too late.
And now the mother looks for ways to honor the daughter. First, by encouraging the state medical board to scrutinize doctors who prescribe recklessly. Second, by organizing a support organization for parents like herself who’ve lost children to drug overdoses. Missing a Piece of My Heart, she wants to call it. Because she is. So many others are too.
“There are so many parents right now in our community that are really suffering,” she said. “It’s hard. I think I’m really fortunate because I believe that God has carried me and my family through this. But I know there’s a lot of people out there that are really having more of a difficult time.”
These tragedies occur not just because of irresponsible behavior of physicians or the ruthless addictiveness of fentanyl, but often because of the carelessness and incompetence of those who work in illicit pill-producing operations.
Criminal drug makers mix the ingredients for counterfeit oxycodone pills in whatever suits the size of their operations — from commercial size blenders to ordinary coffee bean grinders, pulverizing their product to the consistency of French roast and then scooping the mixed powder into pill presses, available to the small-time manufacturer for a little as $15.
If they don’t blend it thoroughly enough, however, the distribution of fentanyl in the pill mixture may be inconsistent, uneven. Some pills may contain almost no fentanyl. Some may contain too much. Those are the ones that kill people. It’s not hyperbole to call this a game of Russian Roulette.
Louie Wright, a former heroin addict turned minister, has seen it play out this way over and over.
“They’re mixing this stuff up, sprinkling in a little bit” of fentanyl, he said. “There’s no consistency. So, whereas one guy, maybe he’s smoking a pill a day, half a pill a serving, or whatever, and he’s fine. But then he gets another pill and it kills him.”
Manufacturing counterfeit, fentanyl-laced oxycodone knockoff pills is actually pretty simple if customer safety is not an overriding concern, but in case wannabe drug dealers need tutorials, those are easily discovered on the internet too.
One, easily found on the internet, is halfway-disguised as a Call of Duty video game.
“I suggest experimenting heavily with fentanyl,” said the anonymous narrator at one point, “because for me, I’ve had a lot of overdoses while putting in not that much.
“You keep piling on more additives that are already toxic, you get a really, really deadly substance — so when you give it to people, they’re going to die. Which isn’t good for business.”
No, not good for business. Nor for families.
Nor for first responders, who’ve found a single nasal blast of Narcan, the brand name for a spray that can bring an unconscious user back from an opioid overdose, is often insufficient. Hall Ambulance personnel and Kern County Sheriff’s deputies were among the local first responders to use Narcan in the field.
Commander Erik Ledvig of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department said fentanyl has forced first responders to change their approach.
“What we were seeing is, we’d administer the first dose of Narcan,” he said. “It was unsuccessful and they had to do a follow-up dose to get them to come out of it. And it was (in every case) fentanyl on everyone that required a second dose.”
The KCSO’s experience with Narcan is just more evidence: Fentanyl, a problem that has been emerging gradually over several years across the U.S., suddenly is spreading with ruthless speed and intensity. And it is tearing Kern County families apart — many of whom are learning about this synthetic drug only after it’s too late.
If you have concerns that someone you know might be using drugs that could contain fentanyl — and that deadly ingredient is turning up more and more in virtually all street drugs, even non-opioids — you can call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or the Kern County Behavioral Health Hotline at 1-800-991-5272. You can also visit the webpages of local organizations Steps of Change, One Door Recovery and Bakersfield Recovery Services. National recovery sites include the Department of Health and Human Services Opioids crisis page and the Partnership to End Addiction webpage. Click here to purchase or learn more about Narcan nasal spray (Naloxone).