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Nevada County opioid overdose rate skyrockets

Overdose deaths

2020 to date: 23

2019: 6

2018: 11

2017: 12

2016: 6

There’s no simple narrative to be derived. No commonalities of age or addiction.

The victims range in age from 18 to 69. Their deaths have occurred all over the Nevada County map.

As of October, these 23 people had just two things in common — they were from Nevada County, and they died this year of an opioid overdose.

The first deaths in the county, which saw just six fatal overdoses in all of 2019, barely caused a ripple in the community’s consciousness. But by midsummer, the alarm bells were sounding after a number of young adults died, some of whom were reportedly connected to a hangout spot in Grass Valley.

“I think we’re all pretty shocked,” said one 20-something who asked not to be named, who has had more than one friend overdose this year. “We have lived very lucky lives. We haven’t ever experienced something like a bunch of people dying all at the same time. … It’s brutal.”

The young woman said the fentanyl overdoses were particularly puzzling because none of the overdose victims she knew of had a social circle in common.

“They (didn’t) hang out with the same groups, I don’t even know if they knew each other,” she said. “I wouldn’t have seen them doing the same thing.”

Facebook alert

By September, the alarming rise in opioid overdoses — and the link in many cases to fentanyl — led to several warnings posted online by the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is like morphine, but it is 50 to 100 times more potent, the Facebook post stated. According to the Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit, some of the overdoses might have been caused by the user ingesting counterfeit prescription pain pills laced with fentanyl. The pills look like legitimate pain medication such as Percocet or Dilaudid and are pressed using antiquated methods by either drug cartels or street criminals with generic binding agents and sometimes lethal doses of fentanyl, the post stated.

“We’re seeing fentanyl in almost every death right now,” said sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pettitt.

“The numbers continue to change and I suspect we’ll see more overdoses,” he said, noting it takes about four weeks to get lab results back. As of the end of September, the county had recorded 23 fatal opioid overdoses, 14 of which had fentanyl in their system. But results were still outstanding on three deaths — from Sept. 24, Oct. 10 and Oct. 21, Pettitt said.

“The demographics are all over the place,” he said. “Some are homeless, some live in expensive homes. Some are in their 20s, some in their 50s. It is literally touching everybody (in this county). It’s spanning the gamut.”

As a parent, Pettitt said, it is particularly scary to see the county’s youth being exposed to a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl in something they think is safe because it is a prescription pill.

Toxicology reports show more than half of the county’s fatal overdoses have been linked to fentanyl, but the method of ingestion is speculative, said sheriff’s Sgt. John Dzioba.

Usually the pills are not present at the scene because they have been ingested, Dzioba said, although witness statements did link the overdose to pills in one death.

“The DEA corroborated that, which opened our eyes to start looking for that (in other overdose cases),” he said.

Fentanyl is becoming more common because it’s so easy to make, Dzioba said. It is being manufactured in China and then shipped to Mexico, where the cartels make the pills, and then it gets transported here.

“It’s easier for them (to smuggle) than heroin,” Dzioba said. “The cartels shift with the times. … Black market drugs are harder to get right now — the price for meth and heroin has tripled. So (painkillers like fentanyl) are the next fad.”

One reason the fake prescription pills can be so lethal, he said, is that they are not being manufactured in a stringent lab setting where doses are carefully calibrated.

“If they mess up even a little bit, they’re going to kill somebody,” Dzioba said.

Multiple sources ID’d

Detectives initially thought the fentanyl might be coming into Nevada County from one source, but during their investigation they have found multiple sources, Dzioba said.

“We’ve identified at least a half-dozen (dealers) locally,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office is currently working with outside agencies in its investigation, Dzioba said, declining to be more specific.

One local man, Nathaniel Opondo Hubbert, was indicted earlier this year on federal drug sale charges after he was linked to three overdoses on June 18 in the Roseville and Rocklin areas. One of those is suspected to have been caused by fentanyl, the indictment stated.

Hubbert, 39, has been charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute fentanyl, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute heroin and fentanyl. He is set to appear in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Jan. 26 for a status conference, court records stated.

A co-defendant, Steven Robinson, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute fentanyl, with a mandatory minimum five-year sentence. He is set for sentencing on Feb. 2, court records state.

According to Dzioba, Hubbert has not been linked to any fentanyl overdoses in Nevada County, though he’s typical of the dealers his office has been investigating.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.


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