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DIGGING DEEPER: Fentanyl overdoses surpass methamphetamine overdoses

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TUCSON - More people are dying from fentanyl overdoses than ever before.  

In the first quarter of the year, there's been an increase in fentanyl overdoses, surpassing methamphetamine overdoses, according to the Pima County Health Department.

This is now a major concern for the health department and law enforcement.

Mark Person is the program director for the Pima County Health Department.

"This drug has now become our number one risk in the community for fatal overdoses," said Person.

Person sent out an alert to all the community partners. 

"It's a public health priority for sure," Person said.

Person said fentanyl was barely on the radar five years ago, maybe five a year.

Last year, Pima County had 89 deaths.

This year, there's been 57 deaths and they're projecting that number to exceed 100.

Some of the reasons for the increase in fentanyl overdoses is supply, demand and it's cheaper than methamphetamine.

Cpt. John Leavitt of the Tucson Police Department is the commander of the Counter Narcotics Alliance.

"In the last three months, the price of meth at the wholesale level was raised, considerably," Leavitt said. "That makes it less affordable and pretty much unavailable to a lot of people."

Leavitt said another reason for the overdoses is that people who are addicted to opioids, such as oxycodone, can't get it as readily from a pharmacy as they used to.

As a result, they go to a street dealer and buy what they think is oxycodone. They don't realize it's cut with fentanyl.

"It's very, very concentrated," Leavitt said. "It's 100 times as strong as morphine and 50 times as strong as heroin."

It is unknown how much of the fentanyl goes into the pills.

Captain Leavitt added, "It's like playing Russian Roulette. It's a very good chance they'll overdose and die. We've seen a lot of that."

There's also a connection to the current COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mark Person.

"The unemployment rates, the financial stress, they're finding their way into homelessness," Person said. "Isolation has an impact on your mental health."  

Captain Leavitt said some of the overdoses are unintentional and one of his units investigates overdose deaths.

"The truth is, these are human beings that are being poisoned by other human beings," Leavitt said. "That's criminal and we're doing what we can to stop that."

The message the health department wants to get out is if people aren't getting opioids from a pharmacy then assume it has fentanyl, and it can kill you.  

To read the full report from the Pima County Health Department, click here.

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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