LOS ANGELES — Alarmed at the soaring death rate from the opioid drug epidemic and the crisis in synthetic drugs, officials here and across the nation are considering new laws allowing them to crack down on users and sellers.
Dr. Sullivan Smith, a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and an active law enforcement officer from Cookeville, Tennessee, is pressing federal lawmakers to “tighten the law and permit the Drug Enforcement Administration … to control and prohibit the importation, possession and use of these hazardous drugs.”
Part two of a two-part series
Smith spoke on behalf of the ACEP in support of House Resolution 3537, the Synthetic Drug Control Act at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s June 7 hearing on Deadly Synthetic Drugs: The Need to Stay Ahead of the Poison Peddlers.
Under H.R. 3537, more than 200 known synthetic drugs would be added to the list of Schedule I drugs, those with potential for high abuse, with no current acceptable medical use, and that cause severe dependence.
“The law would facilitate federal prosecution of manufacturers, distributors and sellers of synthetic drugs,” Smith said.
In California, Senate Bill 139, authored by state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, “would expand and update the list of synthetic drugs and compounds for purposes of existing state law.”
On May 26, The Wave published ‘A Growing Threat,’ part one of its investigation into synthetic marijuana and other drugs. Knowledgeable street sources said that spice, a synthetic form of marijuana, is emerging as more of a lethal threat than opioids.
Fifteen people nationwide died from synthetic cannabinoids or fake marijuana in the first half of 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, “three times the number who died in the same period in 2014.”
“Opioids, primarily prescription pain relievers and heroin, killed 28,647 people in 2014, more than any year on record,” the CDC reported. “Heroin overdose death rates increased by 26 percent from 2013 to 2014 and have more than tripled since 2010. “Seventy-eight Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.”
In California, 12 people a day died of such overdoses in 2014.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has connected the dots between the “opioid crisis” and synthetic drugs and warns of a “deadly convergence of synthetic drug threat and the current national opioid epidemic.”
Retired San Diego County Deputy Sheriff William Perno, an alcohol and drug prevention specialist, said, “California synthetic drug laws are outdated, antiquated and haven’t been updated since first passed in 2012. San Diego had to create a local ordinance —adopted June 14 — to address synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances because of weaknesses in current California law.”
L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Glenn Walsh said, “‘Spice’ is on the rise — and targeted for control — but admissions for treatment of opium addiction are 35.1 percent of admissions in 2015.
“Heroin was 31 percent of the admissions. Oxycodone, non-prescription methadone, and other opiates, including hydrocodone were 4.1 percent,” Walsh said, citing the California Outcome Monitoring System.
The county Department Public Health reported that in 2014, heroin surpassed marijuana and methamphetamine to become the most commonly reported drug of choice.
“People get addicted to an opiate and the cheapest high they can get is from heroin. Drug cartels now are spiking it with fentanyl,” the synthetic narcotic that killed Prince in April. “It’s 50-to-100 times stronger than morphine,” Walsh said.
“Heroin is a huge problem at County-USC Medical Center, the county’s biggest emergency room,” Dr. Sean Nordt of USC’s Keck School of Medicine said. “A lot of people come there from over-using different drugs, including prescription drugs bought on the street. When they have problems finding them, they buy heroin.”
“There are theories behind the uptick in heroin abuse,” Walsh said. “When you look at the ‘abuse triangle,’ a drug is ‘acceptable, affordable and accessible.’ More people try it and get addicted. We’ve lowered the crime associated with it. It’s affordable and more people aren’t scared by drugs. And current research indicates addiction has biological components.”
Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reduced the penalties for narcotics in California. Selling remains a felony — and is considered a serious crime — but possession for personal use of small quantities — is a misdemeanor. Offenders facing reduced penalties are not as inclined to participate in drug treatment programs, which aren’t as accessible as before under Proposition 36’s drug diversion programs.
“We need sound drug policy based on prevention, education, enforcement — and treatment,” Walsh added.
Timothy Kordic, substance abuse prevention researcher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said “alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy and methamphetamines are the main drugs identified in health behavior surveys of our youth, but the biggest lingering issue is prescription drug abuse. Heroin is the new trend.”
“It is up again,” Kordic added, “we’ll see what happens in our numbers next year.”
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph patrols the 50-square block area east of downtown’s skyscrapers.
“Skid Row is the ‘drug capital of the world,’” Joseph said. “Heroin and methamphetamines are neck-and-neck, but crack cocaine is the top-seller.”
“Opiates are huge. People struggling with mental illness sell their prescribed medications — oxycontin and vicodin — to buy crack, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin and ‘spice,’ which is getting worse.”
“New laws are needed and existing state drug enhancement laws should be strengthened and enforced because drugs are being sold inside and within 1,000 feet of rescue missions and drug programs.”
“One-hundred and seven programs on Skid Row help people get their lives back from drugs, mental illness and chronic homelessness,” Joseph added, “but a guy sells alcohol in front of Alcoholics Anonymous while addicts wait in line to get in. That’s one of the sickest things you’ll ever see.”
“Impeding somebody, creating an impropriety, should be a serious crime, but it’s not. That’s why crime is becoming more difficult to stop,” he added.