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Overdose deaths jump in Jackson County

Mail Tribune/File photo In March, Rogue Valley law enforcement arrested a man with 5,030 fentanyl pills, plus heroin, meth and a handgun. Fentanyl has fueled a rise in local and national overdose deaths.
Suicides down; car crash deaths, homicides up

Overdose deaths jumped to 91 in Jackson County in 2021, up from 41 deaths in 2020, and 16 in 2019, according to data from the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Overdose deaths in 2021 outnumbered deaths from suicides, car crashes or homicides — the other major categories of sudden, preventable death investigated by the medical examiner’s office.

Suicide deaths dipped from 69 in 2020 to 55 in 2021. Car crash deaths soared from 15 in 2020 to 38 in 2021, and homicides rose from seven to nine, according to Jackson County Sheriff’s Office data.

The spike in overdose deaths mirrors national trends as dealers increasingly mix fentanyl into drugs such as heroin, meth, cocaine and even marijuana. Fentanyl is a powerful man-made opioid that can suppress breathing and prove deadly. A few salt-sized grains can kill an adult man.

“People are now dying much quicker. People are turning blue and falling to the ground,” said Rogue Valley resident Julia Pinsky, co-founder of the nonprofit group Max’s Mission.

Max’s Mission distributes free naloxone, an easy-to-use nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose and restore breathing. The nonprofit is named after Pinsky’s son Max, who died of a heroin overdose at home in 2013 when he was 25 years old.

Before the proliferation of fentanyl in the drug supply, people would often die more slowly of an opioid drug overdose from heroin or prescription opioid pain pills. Police, paramedics and family and friends equipped with naloxone had more time to reach the person and reverse the overdose.

“It’s taking more doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose. You have to be there much quicker,” Pinsky said. “Someone can die in three minutes.”

International drug cartels used to rely more on heroin derived from poppy flowers. Now they manufacture fentanyl using a mix of chemicals.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s easily manufactured. Cartels no longer have to wait for a crop to be harvested,” Pinsky said. “The profit margin is huge.”

Max’s Mission regularly hosts free overdose antidote distribution events with training in Oregon. It also mails overdose antidote kits to people in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

Pinsky said Max’s Mission has started offering people the choice of regular naloxone or a stronger version of the overdose antidote to help counter fentanyl. Anyone who administers naloxone should still call 911 for medical help because the overdosing person can drift back into an overdose — even after multiple doses of naloxone.

Without Max’s Mission, police, paramedics and others distributing and administering naloxone, Pinsky said the overdose death toll would be far higher.

“We’d have people dying every day,” she said.

Pinsky said she hears heartbreaking stories from people who have lost loved ones.

“Parents are finding their 20-something son or daughter in bed having died of a fentanyl overdose during the night from a tiny little pill,” she said.

Drug dealers sometimes use fentanyl to make counterfeit prescription pain pills. The pills look like they came from a pharmaceutical company. They are often stamped with what looks like a pharmaceutical company mark.

In 2021, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office found enough fentanyl to kill 16,000 people during raids of illegal marijuana operations.

In March of this year, the Rogue Area Drug Enforcement Team and the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team arrested a man with 5,030 fentanyl pills, a pound of heroin, 3.5 grams of meth and a handgun on I-5 near Grants Pass.

Also in March, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon announced that two separate investigations netted 265,000 counterfeit prescription pills made with fentanyl plus 20 pounds of bulk fentanyl. Cartels allegedly planned to distribute the pills in Oregon and Washington.

Legitimate fentanyl is used to treat severe pain, such as that experienced by cancer patients. But drug cartels increasingly use ingredients bought in China to make fentanyl in illegal Mexican labs, according to a 2022 report by the federal Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.

Pinsky said she sees no end in sight to the escalation in drug overdose deaths.

She said, “2022 won’t be any better. It will probably be worse. It just seems to accelerate.”

Nationwide, an estimated 106,854 people died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending November 2021, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overdose deaths were up from the year before, when about 93,000 people died. The 2000 number was a record, until it was eclipsed by the latest count for 2021.

“It affects every socioeconomic group that you can imagine, from people on the street to people who are quite comfortably off,” Pinsky said. “It’s not just ‘those people.’ That’s a huge part of the stigma. Everyone likes to think, ‘It’s those people.’”

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he thinks the spike in local overdose deaths is driven by fentanyl plus Oregon’s Measure 110.

“We do believe Measure 110 and fentanyl are having a significant impact on that number,” he said of the 91 overdose deaths in Jackson County in 2021.

Approved by Oregon voters and financially backed by a New York-based drug decriminalization group, Measure 110 decriminalized possession of user amounts of drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine starting in 2021. People caught with those drugs receive a $100 ticket, which can be waived if they call a state hotline and answer some screening questions. They don’t have to seek any kind of treatment to get the fine waived, and few people have called the hotline, according to tracking data.

Measure 110 touted decriminalization and treatment, and diverts hundreds of millions of dollars in Oregon marijuana tax revenue from schools, law enforcement and other services toward helping people who use drugs.

However, Oregon isn’t using the diverted revenue to fund addiction treatment like residential programs or detox centers, where people can withdraw from drugs under medical supervision and with the aid of medication that eases withdrawal symptoms.

Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, Oregon fears it could jeopardize federal funding for addiction treatment if it uses state marijuana tax revenue. Addiction treatment providers say government reimbursement rates are so low they can’t attract and keep workers, which limits their ability to serve people battling substance use disorder. Most have long waiting lists for residential treatment.

The Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council, which is made up of Oregon residents, allocated an initial pool of more than $30 million last year to efforts like overdose antidote distribution, clean needle exchange programs for injection drug users, supportive housing and peer mentors.

But this year, the oversight council is bogged down in a flood of grant applications for $270 million in Measure 110 funding from marijuana taxes. Groups that hope to get money remain in limbo.

Sickler said he thinks the measure and its implementation need to be reevaluated.

“I do think it will have a significant negative impact on the community,” he said.

Oregon ranks second worst in the nation for addiction to drugs and alcohol, and has fallen to last place among states for access to substance use disorder treatment, according to the latest federal data gathered in 2020.

Nearly one-in-five Oregonians age 12 and older have a substance use disorder, according to the data.

Drugs and alcohol play a role in some of the Jackson County car crash deaths, according to toxicology reports done when people are killed.

In 2019, Jackson County had 20 crash fatalities and 18 cases involved impairment, according to sheriff’s office data.

People drove less in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The county recorded 15 crash fatalities that year, with seven cases involving impairment.

Toxicology data isn’t yet available for the 38 crash fatalities in 2021.

Sickler said deputies have been seeing an increase in aggressive driving. They’ve also been pulled away by illegal marijuana operations and have less time to write tickets for speeding and other types of dangerous driving.

From 2016 to 2018, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office investigated two to three homicides each year. The sheriff’s office recorded six homicides in 2019, seven in 2020 and nine in 2021.

Sickler said violent crime, including homicide, is up with the proliferation of illegal marijuana operations in the county.

Marijuana is legal in Oregon, and hemp — marijuana’s look-alike relative that doesn’t get users high — was legalized nationwide in 2018. Some growers are raising marijuana under the guise of hemp to avoid more onerous state regulations on marijuana.

Suicide numbers have declined from 73 in 2019, to 69 in 2020, to 55 in 2021 in Jackson County, according to sheriff’s office data.

Although still tragically high, the drop in suicides was welcome news to people who feared a spike in suicides during the pandemic. Surveys of youth and adults have consistently found higher rates of depression and anxiety over the past few years.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.