Tom Durkin
: Righting a wrong |

Tom Durkin
: Righting a wrong

Several years ago, I wrote “The myth of the accidental overdose” (April 19, 2019, Other Voices, The Union).

I was wrong.

I was mostly right at the time, but now there’s a dangerous new drug in town: fentanyl.

Laced with other drugs and counterfeited to look like prescription medication, fentanyl is causing genuine accidental overdose deaths.

A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is about 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It can be swallowed, smoked, inhaled, snorted, injected or absorbed through the skin via transdermal patch.

Illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids have been a growing component of the “opioid crisis” nationally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported synthetics “accounted for nearly 73% of all opioid-involved deaths in 2019.”

According to Nevada County Public Health Department data, there were 18 overdose deaths 2019, but none were attributed to fentanyl.

However, in 2020, there were 36 overdose deaths, and 19 had a fentanyl component.

In 2021, Public Health is reporting 12 non-fentanyl and four fentanyl-involved ODs so far this year. These numbers are not official yet, because toxicology reports can take up to three months, said Toby Guevin, health education coordinator for public health.

It is unknown how many were suicides. Some users are in so much physical or psychological pain that they are “indifferent” as to whether they live or die, said Matt Kellegrew, a public defender and volunteer with the Nevada County Harm Reduction Coalition.

The key word in discussing fentanyl overdoses is “involved,” because opioid overdose deaths usually are the result of combination with drugs like alcohol, benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Xanax), methamphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, MDMA or heroin, to name a few.

Experienced drug users who know how to manage their use are dying of accidental overdoses because they don’t know the drug they’re taking has been laced with fentanyl, said Ariel Lovett, CEO of Granite Wellness Center (formerly known as CORR).

“We’re very concerned about our young people,” she added. She and seven other local authorities addressed overdoses in Nevada County in an Oct. 22, 2020, virtual town hall conference hosted by Pascale Fusshoeller of news service.

Younger, less-experienced users and experimenters are particularly vulnerable to accidental overdoses because they lack necessary knowledge and take more risks, several of the law enforcement and medical town hall panelists noted.


“Just say no to drugs” is a joke. Drug users laugh at anti-drug messages. I know because I’ve been a drug/suicide hotline counselor, taught drug education and diversion classes, and am a drug user myself (mostly beer and cannabis with past excursions into psychedelics and amphetamines).

So, when I was at Hot Summer Nights and I saw a table with a banner that read “Harm Reduction,” I had to check it out.

The table was “manned” by Rhi Jenerate and Bethany Wilkins, two volunteers with the Harm Reduction Coalition. They were offering nonjudgmental, factual brochures on overdose prevention and information cards on popular drugs that are often laced with fentanyl.

More important, they were giving away free fentanyl testing strips.

Even more important, Jenerate and Wilkins were signing up people to take a short, free class in how to revive an opioid overdose victim with Narcan (naloxone) nasal spray. A life-saving dose of Narcan is free, too.

Moreover, coalition members have been training and supplying Narcan to bar, restaurant and hotel staff to keep in their first-aid kits. “It’s been really well-received,” Jenerate said.

The societal stress of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the “opioid epidemic.” Even worse, the pre-existing push to cut off the oversupply of prescription opioids has caused many legitimate pain patients to have been arbitrarily and unfairly taken off their medication.

These people are in genuine pain — and at great risk. That’s why it is vitally important to use fentanyl test strips on any drugs acquired in the underground market.


Who are these wise, compassionate people working to keep drug users alive?

Neither a nonprofit nor government program, the Nevada County Harm Reduction Coalition is a grassroots initiative. Just folks who care.

“We all see societally how ineffective our former approaches have been, so we’re like, OK, here’s a way for us to come together and kind of care for each other, especially during this time of Covid,“ said Jenerate, who has a background in social work.

The intent is to “destigmatize and normalize drug use … and empower youth to make safe choices,” added Wilkins, who is a peer-level volunteer and seven years into recovery.

“Public health has been full-on supportive of the coalition. So has Granite Wellness. Everybody is coming together,” Jenerate said.

Coalition members will have a table at the Jerry Bash concert this Saturday in Pioneer Park. They will also be at Ridgestock Music and Sustainability Expo Aug. 28 at the North Columbia Schoolhouse in North San Juan.

Anyone who needs unbiased drug information, test strips and Narcan training, or who wants to volunteer for the coalition is invited to text or call 530-362-8163 or email

I was wrong about accidental overdoses two years ago, but I am sure the Harm Reduction Coalition is doing the right thing … because you can’t rehab a dead person.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County and a member of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at

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