Overdoses involving fentanyl were behind one in five deaths of people ages 15-24 in California, the latest indicator of an emergency that shows no signs of slowing.
Drug overdoses now kill two to three times as many people in the state as car accidents, according to data compiled by the consulting group California Health Policy Strategies. Since 2017, deaths related to the synthetic opioid, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, have increased 1,027%.
The crisis, which has visibly unfolded on city streets from San Francisco to Los Angeles, has sent officials scrambling for solutions. This year California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has proposed spending an additional $172m for a project distributing Naloxone, an overdose medication.
But experts warn more is needed and that the effects of the crisis will probably continue for years to come.
“Even if we do a lot of things right in policy, we’re going to have a fair amount of deaths in the coming years,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert and professor at Stanford University, told California Healthline.
San Francisco has been hit particularly hard, with one person dying of an accidental overdose every 10 hours. The city saw 200 overdoses in the first three months of the year, compared with 142 in the same months a year ago, according to reports by the city’s medical examiner.
The city has taken an increasingly punitive approach to handling drug users. An expert told the Guardian last month that this had only heightened their overdose risks. Overdoses in the city increased significantly in December, and rose particularly in January, just as the city government closed a key outreach center, where people were using drugs with medical supervision, and increased policing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, which has struggled with drug use.
Last month, Newsom directed the California highway patrol and national guard to help San Francisco tackle fentanyl.
As the emergency has intensified in the city, San Franciscans have butted heads about solutions. A special meeting to address the crisis on Tuesday with the mayor and board of supervisors turned into a “circus”, SFGate reported, with protesters shouting over officials and one woman throwing a brick.
“What we are doing is not working. And in fact, our local resources have increased. But it has not dealt with the problem based on the magnitude of what we are experiencing,” Mayor London Breed said. “The fact is, it’s time for a change. We want to get people help, but we will not continue to allow things to just occur as they have been.”
At the state level, Newsom has put more than $1bn toward efforts to alleviate the crisis, and lawmakers have sought to make overdose medication widely available across the state.
“We have more work to do,” the governor said earlier this month. “This consumes me. As a parent, it scares the hell out of me.”
California lawmakers on Wednesday held the first hearing with a new committee formed to help alleviate the state’s fentanyl crisis.
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