BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — There’s a pandemic out there of a type not associated with any kind of virus. Vaccines, social distancing, mask mandates — are of no value. This is strictly a man-made pandemic — and it’s built on profit, addiction and deception.
The agent of death in this pandemic is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it killed 81,000 Americans between May 2019 and May 2020.
In 2020, fentanyl — in combination with other drugs and by itself — killed, according to the coroner’s office, at least 125 people in Kern County. That’s two and half fentanyl overdose deaths per week countywide, 10 a month throughout a year in which almost all the headlines were devoted to another killer — COVID-19.
Perhaps you’ve heard of fentanyl. Perhaps you recognize it as the poison that killed musicians Prince in 2016 and Tom Petty in 2017 — and very nearly killed singer Demi Lovato in 2018. That makes fentanyl old news, right?
Except it’s not. It’s here now, in Kern County — still — and it’s worse than ever. Fentanyl is already the confirmed or suspected primary factor in 54 overdose deaths this year, putting Kern County on track for 150 fentanyl overdoses in 2021.
And if it becomes as prevalent here as it is in the Northeastern United States, it will get worse still.
Last year 10 western states including California reported a near-doubling of deaths from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, from the previous year, and deaths from fentanyl have only accelerated since then. Illegal pill seizures — one major indicator of the depth of the problem — are way up.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Department seized 7,800 pills in 2019. In 2020, it seized 65,000 – an eight-fold increase. Through the first 19 weeks of 2021, the KCSO already had seized more than 70,000 pills — putting it on track to confiscate 195,000, exactly triple 2020’s haul.
And that number doesn’t include the confiscations from a pair of March 26 raids by a multi-jurisdictional task force led by the federal Department of Homeland Security that resulted in nine arrests and the seizure of more than 380 pounds of methamphetamine and eight pounds of fentanyl — the equivalent of 30,000 counterfeit oxy pills.
Fatal fentanyl overdoses have visited every state and virtually every U.S. city, including Bakersfield.
Some households felt that pain more than once.
In March of last year Dan Harte lost his 28-year-old son Dylan: Dan found Dylan unresponsive in his room and called 911. It was too late. Nine months later, in December, four days after Christmas, incredibly, Harte lost his other son, 23-year-old Camren. He found him unresponsive in his room and called 911. It was too late.
Two sons, same year, same drug.
Camren’s Covid-delayed funeral was Feb. 2. Thirty friends attended; several spoke of his irreverent wit, his love of life, his ability to brighten a room. Dmitri Martfeld was his best friend.
“Cam could take anyone’s sad and turn their day completely around in 30 seconds,” said Martfeld, his neck and arms canvasses of black-line tattoos.
They also spoke of the insidious omnipresence of the drug that took Camren Harte — and, in recent years, others in their group of friends. Camren’s friend, Matthew Hanash, his short, bright red-orange hair standing out among the mourners, used his time at the podium to deliver a message.
“Basically, I just asked everyone to stop doing those drugs,” Hanash said. “It’s like — we lost one of my best friends. Someone I can never get back. Someone that can never be replaced. And his brother died the same way, through the same drug dealer, same drug.”
Hanash said fentanyl is pervasive among his acquaintances.
“I know plenty of people out here who are doing these drugs right now,” he said. “Probably all of it is fake. I just want everybody to stop doing drugs. Seriously, it’s not worth it. We’re losing the best of us.”
Dylan and Camren’s father, Danny Harte, was matter-of-fact about his double tragedy.
“They’re selling death out there,” he said. “And it happens so fast. I’ve met so many mothers recently that are going through the same thing. It’s just mind boggling. How many people got up there and spoke of other friends of Camren that died the same way? Both my sons died the same way. I just want to see a stop to it. They’re selling death.”
He said he prays Camren’s friends see fentanyl for what it is.
“Don’t follow in Camren’s steps,” Harte said he would advise them. “Most of them don’t. Most of them were trying to help Camren get straight. At least the ones I know of. At least I hope they stay on that path.”
Martfeld said he had a drug problem too but got sober four years ago and was pushing his best friend to do the same. Camren told Martfeld’s mother he was ready to take that step.
“The day before Christmas he told me, ‘This is my Christmas gift to you: I’m gonna get sober,’” said Jeanne Martfeld. “He hugged me and I hugged him and I said, ‘I hope so, Camren.’”
Camren died five days later, before he could deliver on that promise.
“He was trying to get into a rehab,” Harte said. “He’d come crying to me like a week before this happened saying he knows he’s gonna die if he doesn’t get help.”
Another life lost to fentanyl. Another family devastated. This one, twice. With one new fentanyl overdose death every three days last year in Kern County, maybe the odds of it taking two brothers weren’t as astronomical as it might have seemed.
Not with a drug as popular, plentiful and deadly as fentanyl. An incredibly miniscule dose can be fatal.
The toxicity of most opioids, drugs like heroin, are measured in milligrams. Fentanyl is so potent it’s sometimes measured in micrograms, one-one thousandth of a milligram — and 700 micrograms, not much more than the size of a single grain of salt, is fatal.
A kilo brick of seized fentanyl, 2.2 pounds, is enough to kill every man, woman and child in Bakersfield. Merely touching it can cause — and has caused — a medical emergency.
That’s why law enforcement officers are required to take special precautions when they handle it — masks, double gloves. It’s so toxic, even the slightest absorption through the skin can cause someone to pass out. That’s what happened to a police officer handling seized fentanyl in Bartlesville, Okla. last year. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He recovered.
Bakersfield Police Detective Peter Beagley says fentanyl’s toxicity is matched only by its profitability.
“If they buy a kilo of fentanyl they’re able to turn that into … $10 million to $20 million off that one kilo,” he said.
When it’s taken in combination with another opioid like heroin or oxycodone, as is often the case with illicitly manufactured counterfeit pills, even the tiniest dose of fentanyl can be fatal.
And you can buy some right now, today, on social media platforms like Snapchat, from your friendly neighborhood drug dealer.
“On social media they’ll post kind of what would be their menu of goods,” Beagley said. “They’re pretty blatant about it.”
Dealers post advertisements almost like those supermarket circulars in your mailbox, except this is on your phone, the detective said. Or your kid’s phone.
All of this matters because fentanyl — a chemical cousin of heroin and opium — has arrived in Kern County with widespread ruthlessness. And Kern County families are not prepared. They don’t know what it is, where their family members are getting it, or what it can do to them. Families need to grasp the unforgiving finality of a fentanyl overdose — now, not after it hits home.
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).