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Fentanyl overdose deaths doubled last year in Idaho

Preliminary data shows fentanyl was related to 42% of overdose deaths in Idaho last year, according to the state's Drug Overdose Prevention Program.

BOISE, Idaho — The amount of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the Gem State has doubled within the last year, according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's Drug Overdose Prevention Program.

Health Program Manager Caroline Messerschmidt said fentanyl was related to 21% of overdose deaths in 2020. She said preliminary data for 2021 shows fentanyl was related to 42% of overdose deaths in Idaho.

"We're seeing an increase across the state as far as who is being impacted by fentanyl," Messerschmidt said. "Health District's 1 (Panhandle), 4 (Central) and 5 (South Central) have an overdose death rate above the state's overdose death rate of 16 per 100,000 individuals."

"I think we really have a danger to Idaho families," said Luke Malek, a former prosecutor, and former Idaho representative. "Three out of every 10 pills will kill somebody."

Malek resides in the Coeur d'Alene, which falls under the Pandhandle Health District area and where Kootenai County Sheriff's Office said fentanyl-related deaths have doubled in the past year.

He said working as a prosecutor he's witnessed the impacts opioids have on families and the dangers it brings to communities.

"With drug trade comes violence, sex trafficking - it's impacting families on multiple levels," Malek said.

He has been appointed as the chair of the Citizen's Action Group on Fentanyl for Operation Esto Perpetua. They will meet regularly around Idaho over the next several weeks, taking comments from local residents, including local law enforcement.

"We're looking for issues that are specific for the regions in Idaho, we're also looking for common threads," Malek said. "The more we can focus on those commonalities, the more effectively we can fight this surge."

Being able to visit around the state to listen and educate Idahoans is something the Director of Idaho's Office of Drug Policy Marianne King said she also looking forward to. The Office provides prevention efforts by developing and implementing strategic action plans and collaborative partnerships to reduce drug use and related consequences.

"We want to walk away from this initiative exercise with some very specific recommendations to hand to the governor that we can implement out in the field and find solutions to what's going on in Idaho and across the nation with this epidemic," King said.

While Operation Esto Perpetua's goal is to curb the use of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Idaho, there has been a bigger push in recent months to educate the public about the former. That's because Idaho leaders and law enforcement are worried about how fast the increase in use has been and how dangerous it is."

"It's 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine," said Idaho State Police Sgt. Curt Sproat.

According to Idaho State Police (ISP), meth continues to be the largest seized controlled substance. Data from ISP shows out of the 10,333 controlled substances cases tested in an ISP forensics service lab, 41% was meth, while 6.24% was fentanyl.

However, looking at data from past years fentanyl has seen a steady increase. 

Controlled Substances cases that had at least one item test positive for any fentanyl:

  • 2019: 0.41%
  • 2020: 1.42%
  • 2021: 6.24%

"In 2021 from January to September compared to 2020 we saw an over 500% increase in the amount of fentanyl we were seizing," Sgt. Sproat said. 

Messerschmidt said the state is seeing more drug overdoses occur in the 35-64-year-old age group. However, people of all ages are falling victim to opioids because people are disguising them to look like other drugs and it can be in the supply of other drugs (Adderall, cocaine, etc). She said people could be using fentanyl and not even know it.

"Where the lethality comes from is because people don't have the tolerance if they're not historically taking opioids. That's what makes it a really risky substance," Messerschmidt said. She added that fentanyl/drug lookalikes are where more recreational drug users are falling victim.

Messerschmidt said the state's Drug Overdose Prevention Program is also looking for ways to educate the public about fentanyl, but as well as what Naxolone is. IDHW has increased funding to provide more accessibility of Naloxone because Messerschmidt said they know it's able to save lives.

IDHW offers free Narcan.

King said some first responders around the state leave Naloxone with people and their families after responding to an overdose. Law enforcement agencies, like ISP, have deputies have Naloxone at all times.

King said the increase of fentanyl in the past few years has prompted an initiative like Esto Perpetua, but tackling the issues of drugs is always an important topic.

"We're not waiting until it gets to levels where we have seen in other states," King said. 

According to the governor's office, law enforcement reporting shows drugs are primarily transported into Oregon and Idaho from Mexico through California. Also, approximately 96% of drug trafficking organizations investigated identified Mexico as the source country for drugs trafficked into the region.

Malek said Idaho is looking to work with neighboring states to target the networks that profit off the drugs to hopefully stem the surge.

"The problem is here, so we have to do our part to protect our way of life here in Idaho."

Beginning next week, the Citizens Action Group on Fentanyl will meet biweekly throughout the state over the next couple of months. More information about Operation Esto Perpetua and those upcoming meetings is posted here.

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