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Feds in Valley Crack Down on Fentanyl as US Overdose Deaths Eclipse 103,000

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The DEA has seized a record 12,000 pounds of fentanyl this year, the Biden administration says. (AP File)
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After the CDC said that a record 103,300 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year, the rise of illicit fentanyl was on full display at the federal courthouse in Fresno on Thursday.

U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced the indictments of two men in two separate cases involving fentanyl. A Bakersfield man also pleaded guilty to fentanyl trafficking. And, on Monday, a Fresno man received a five-year prison sentence for trafficking fentanyl and illegally having guns.

The CDC’s number is an estimate based on available death certificate data from May 2020 to April 2021.

Health officials say that number reflects the explosion of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users isolated and unable to get treatment.

The number is “devastating,” Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University expert on drug abuse, told the Associated Press. “It’s a magnitude of overdose death that we haven’t seen in this country.”

Overdoses Kill More People Than Crashes, Guns

Drug overdoses now surpass deaths from car crashes, guns, and even flu and pneumonia. The death total is close to that for diabetes, the nation’s No. 7 cause of death.

In 2020, according to the CDC, about 93,000 people died of overdoses, a record at the time.

The new data shows many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs — one reason that deaths from meth and cocaine also are rising.

“This is not just a law enforcement problem,” Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said in 2019 as deaths from illicit fentanyl began to climb locally. “This is a very serious public health issue.”

Latest Valley Fentanyl Cases

Jose Luis Santana, 43, of Shafter, was charged Thursday with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and heroin. According to court documents, officers seized about 2.5 kilograms of fentanyl, 2.5 kilograms of heroin, two firearms, and approximately $5,000 in cash from his vehicle and motel room in Bakersfield on Tuesday.

Jose Antonio Nunez De Jesus, 27, of Portland, Oregon, was charged with possessing and trafficking fentanyl. After a vehicle stop in Fresno, officers found approximately 34,020 counterfeit OxyContin pills that a test revealed to be fentanyl. According to court records, Nunez said he picked up what he believed were prescription drugs in Los Angeles and was returning to Portland.

Uriel Ivan Portillo, 35, of Bakersfield, pleaded guilty Thursday to drug trafficking. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that Portillo sold 5,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl for $40,000 in Bakersfield. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Dillon Thomas Johnson, 20, of Fresno, received a five-year sentence on Monday after pleading guilty to drug trafficking and gun violations. The investigation into Johnson began after two people overdosed on fentanyl pills last year, investigators said.

DEA Seizes 12,000 Pounds of Fentanyl

Drug cartels in Mexico are using chemicals from China to mass-produce and distribute fentanyl and meth across America, said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

This year, the DEA has seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl, a record amount, Milgram said. But public health experts and even police officials say that law enforcement measures will not stop the epidemic, and more needs to be done to dampen demand and prevent deaths.

(Associated Press contributed to this story.)

 

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email