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A Warning from OC Sheriff Don Barnes on Fentanyl

The extent of the challenge at our nation’s border is illustrated by the numbers.  There were 203,597 migrant encounters at the U.S.–Mexico border in the month of August.  Total encounters for the federal fiscal year thus far is over 2 million.  The most ever.   It is estimated that there have been over 550,000 “gotaways” in 2022, these are individuals who were spotted but not contacted while entering our country.  Most shocking is the number of deaths.  Since October 1 2021, the start of the federal fiscal year 2022, there have been 748 migrant deaths at the border, another record.  That is up from 557 southwest border deaths during fiscal year 2021, the previous record.

These numbers are alarming, but it may not always be apparent how this crisis directly affects us here in Orange County.  Of course there are numerous impacts.  One of the most immediate is the flood of fentanyl coming into our communities.  According to Customs and Border Patrol, from October 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, 5,091 pounds of fentanyl was seized at California port of entries in Imperial and San Diego County.  This is approximately 60 percent of the 8,425 pounds of fentanyl seized around the entire country.  As significant as these numbers are, the amount that gets through is certainly much greater.

The prevalence of fentanyl in Orange County is illustrated by the increase in seizures made by narcotics investigators of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.  In 2021, Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators seized 104.6 pounds of fentanyl and 16,278 pills.  In the first eight months of 2022 we seized 412 pounds of suspected fentanyl and 283,510 pills containing fentanyl.  This significant increase occurred without any changes in our operations or an increase in our personnel.  More is being seized because more is coming in.  

This influx has had tragic consequences for Orange County families.  In 2016 there were 37 fentanyl-related deaths in Orange County.  This number increased to 716 in 2021.  For cases investigated by the Orange County Coroner, fentanyl-related deaths was the number one killer of children 17 and under in 2021.

We have implemented several solutions to stop this epidemic from claiming more lives.  A critical piece of our strategy is addressing the demand for drugs by educating our community about the risks of fentanyl.  We know that even one illicit pill can kill.  Experimenting with pills is the modern day version of Russian roulette.  This past school year we adopted a new drug education curriculum, “Above the Influence.”  This contemporary program is being taught to 5th and 6th students in schools within Sheriff’s Department service areas. 

Holding accountable those trafficking fentanyl is of equal importance. Last year we began issuing advisements to all those arrested for selling narcotics.  The advisement states that if a dealer sells, furnishes or distributes drugs to someone, and that person dies as a result of using the drugs, the dealer can be charged with murder.  This action makes clear that those engaged in furthering the drug epidemic will face consequence for their careless treatment of life.  Since March of 2021 our homicide and narcotics teams have investigated more than 125 drug-related deaths with the intent of identifying the supplier for prosecution. To that end, this Spring I joined with the DEA and US Attorney’s office in announcing criminal cases against drug dealers who sold fentanyl that caused fatal drug-related deaths in Orange County. 

While these local efforts will have an impact, success in ending the fentanyl epidemic will not fully occur until the federal government takes action.  This brings me back to the border.  Securing our border is the single most effective way to stop the fentanyl pouring into our communities.  I hope you will join me in encouraging our federal government to do the following:

  • Target the Drug Cartels- Anyone familiar with the border crisis knows that the Drug Cartels are a significant driving force behind the chaos that occurs there each day.  More effectively confronting these Cartels is critical.  We must resume collaborative efforts with the Mexican government  to destroy drug labs and prosecute the drug kingpins whose quest for illicit profit is wreaking havoc on American families.
  • Enhance Physical Border Security- More investment in border security infrastructure would close the gaps being exploited by smugglers.  This means completing physical barriers and technology projects that will assist our border patrol personnel in achieving their mission.
  • Increase High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Initiatives (HIDTA): HIDTA helps fund collaborative efforts among federal, state and local law enforcement aimed at disrupting drug trafficking and production.  The funding is specifically targeted to those areas of the country most impacted by drug trafficking.  Funding for HIDTA operations has remained relatively flat over the past five years.  For our local HIDTA program, a lack of financial resources have forced federal agencies to reduce the number of personnel assigned by 50%.  

Only the federal government has the resources, legal authority, diplomatic standing and moral obligation to secure the border and stop the flow of fentanyl that has claimed so many precious lives.  This is a non-partisan issue, a security issue, and a public health issue.  Americans are dying and the cartels are responsible for killing them.  We must act now.

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