County leaders discuss battle against fentanyl epidemic

Town hall meeting in Dinuba delves into law enforcement’s struggle as fentanyl continues relentless march across local regions

Tulare County Mental Health Director Dr. Natalie Bolin sharing fentanyl-related stats during the town hall meeting at the New Life Community Church in Dinuba. (Darren Fraser)
Tulare County Mental Health Director Dr. Natalie Bolin sharing fentanyl-related stats during the town hall meeting at the New Life Community Church in Dinuba. (Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published January 21, 2024  • 
12:00 pm
DINUBA – Tulare County Supervisor Eddie Valero’s recent town hall meeting at the New Life Community Church touched on multiple topics related to fentanyl, from addiction to trafficking, warning signs, prevention and Narcan training – but the conversation didn’t end there. A good deal of the discussion on Jan. 13 focused on Proposition 47 and how state legislators have let down their communities by not taking a hardline approach against the individuals making the drug and those who are selling it. About 200 attended the morning meeting, which featured a speaker panel, including Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman, Tulare County Mental Health Director Dr. Natalie Bolin, Dinuba Police Chief Abel Iriarte and interim Dinuba Fire Chief Greg Chastain. “I stand before you today as your county supervisor, deeply concerned and committed to addressing a pressing issue that has woven itself into the fabric of our community,” Valero said at the start of the meeting.  “The alarming rise in fentanyl-related incidents in Tulare County. Our gathering today signifies a collective effort to confront this crisis head on, fostering awareness and exploring effective solutions.”

LAWS ARE COMPLETELY INADEQUATE

“Let me give you a little perspective about legislation and – as the DA – our laws,” said District Attorney Ward. “The reality is our laws are completely inadequate to address this tragedy right now.” He attributed the inadequacy to fentanyl’s relatively new emergence on the drug scene. A person in possession of heroin, methamphetamine (meth) or cocaine, who is also carrying a loaded and functioning firearm, if arrested, can receive additional time. Not so with fentanyl. “Why?” asked Ward. “Because it came into reality (as a controlled substance) after those laws were created.”  He went on to explain that, unlike with heroin, meth or cocaine, a prosecutor cannot charge a person with additional penalties if that individual distributed fentanyl to another who subsequently suffered grave bodily injuries as a result of taking the drug. Ward said he and his fellow district attorneys wanted the state legislature to enact laws for fentanyl comparable to drunk driving laws. “We have the ability to charge someone with vehicular manslaughter. If a person convicted of drunk driving drives drunk again and kills someone, that person can be convicted of murder,” Ward said. But the legislature refused to take up the challenge. He said lawmakers did pass a law that adds additional punishment for anyone caught with a large amount of the drug, but considering that amount is over a kilogram, he said this law will only affect a miniscule amount of people who come across his desk. “The fact is our legislature and Sacramento let down the families who have been impacted, and the families who will be impacted,” he said.

PROPOSITION 47

The discussion shifted to Proposition 47 (Prop 47) and the deleterious effect it has had on police efforts to combat drug-related crimes. Voters approved Prop 47 on Nov. 5, 2014. The intent of the proposition was to reduce California’s exploding prison population by making some non-violent property crimes misdemeanors. The proposition also classified simple drug offenses into misdemeanors and allowed courts the discretion to reduce prior drug convictions to misdemeanors. Ward said what Prop 47 did was decrease the number of individuals who can be charged with a crime. He said because courts were no longer charging individuals with felony drug possession, there was no incentive for these people to seek treatment programs that were available through California’s drug courts, which offered offenders treatment instead of incarceration. “Our drug court has all but died after Prop 47. The decriminalization of the possession of drugs has had a horrible, tragic, humanitarian crisis on our streets,” said Ward.

PRODUCERS OF FENTANYL DON’T CARE

Dinuba Police Chief Abel Iriarte delivered the most prescient remark of the morning. “Producers of fentanyl don’t care about you, me, or anyone in society, as long as they get paid,” said Iriarte. During his time at the podium, Iriarte gave the audience a brief history of drugs in Dinuba. Prior to fentanyl, methamphetamines (meth) and cocaine were the drugs of choice for users and addicts. Meth supplanted cocaine because it was cheaper and gave a longer high than cocaine, but it caused a lot more damage – i.e., meth mouth. Iriarte said the drug world is cyclical. In time, cocaine became less expensive than meth. Then, around 2010, opioids hit Dinuba. As time passed, the manufacturers discovered that fentanyl was cheaper to produce than heroin – and easier to make. Iriarte asked the audience to visualize a large pill. He said pharmaceutical companies that produce legal fentanyl know how to evenly disperse chemicals throughout the pill to ensure the person taking the pill does not overdose. Illegal drug producers do not practice the same quality control. “Part of the pill will have a lot of fentanyl, and part of the pill will have no fentanyl,” he said. “You may take a pill thinking you’re taking Xanax or Oxycontin. And 40 to 50% (of the time) you’re going to OD because it has too much fentanyl in it.” Iriarte shared Ward’s disdain for how Prop 47 has handcuffed police. He gave a “before and after” scenario during the meeting. “You would get a person walking the streets with a bindle of meth, a bindle of cocaine,” he said. “They’re automatically taken to county jail. Now, it’s a misdemeanor with Prop 47. You almost have to have a kilo and a scale to get a felony charge.” He said now, when police arrest someone for drug possession, the individual is released from custody with a ticket to appear in court, which is – invariably – ignored. The ticket turns into a warrant, which, too, is ignored. “Some of these people are walking around with seven or eight warrants,” said Iriarte. “Or if they’re arrested, they’re released after an additional, say, 45 days. And then they’re out on the street breaking into your vehicles and taking what they need to purchase drugs.” On an ominous note, Iriarte said fentanyl is not going away. “It’s going to get worse,” he said. More ominous still, he said he expects it will soon be vaped. He also mentioned that cocaine, meth and marijuana are being laced with fentanyl. “You may think it’s okay for kids to be smoking marijuana because society has accepted marijuana to an extent,” he said. Iriarte concluded his talk by discussing Xylazine, which goes by the street name tranq. The drug is a powerful sedative, used on horses and cattle. Users combine it with fentanyl to enhance the effects. Iriarte said the drug cocktail is popular among Fresno’s homeless community, but cautioned it is only a matter of time before it becomes a local problem. “We’re going to see it here,” he said.

FENTANYL IN TULARE COUNTY

County Fire Chief Charlie Norman said Tulare County Fire Department (TCFD) runs roughly 16,000 calls for service annually in the county, which is about 4400 square miles. Over 67% of the department’s calls are medical calls. Norman said the county averages about 87 overdoses a year, which are not limited to fentanyl. In 2020, TCFD responded to 104 overdose calls. In 2021, there were 70; in 2022, 93. Last year, there were 81 calls. County Mental Health Director Natalie Bolin said there were 57 overdose deaths in the county in 2022. There were 228 emergency room visits related to opioid overdoses. She said that American Ambulance, which contracts with the county, responded to 784 opioid-related calls. Ambulance personnel administered Narcan 319 times. Interim Dinuba Fire Chief Greg Chastain said when his department responds to a call involving a possible overdose, the clock starts ticking. “We have about six minutes before brain damage,” said Chastain. He said when people overdosed on heroin, first responders may find the individual unconscious but still breathing. But fentanyl is so strong that it has removed that small window when Narcan can be administered and reverse the effects of a drug, even if the individual is unconscious. “Fentanyl is so potent, the user is not getting a predictable response from the drug,” Chastain said. “We’re not seeing respiratory suppression. We’re seeing respiratory arrest.”
Darren Fraser
Reporter