The opioid crisis in America, especially in the Central Valley, doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. As bleak as it may seem, the number of opioid overdoses backs that sentiment as numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate.
Nonprofit organizations, local law enforcement agencies, and Fresno County officials have focused on fighting the crisis with community involvement and education on how deadly the opioid epidemic currently is.
Flindt Anderson is the founder of Parents and Addicts In Need (PAIN), a non-profit organization created in 2009 focusing on navigating individuals’ path to sobriety through family support services and personalized help.
Since its inception, PAIN has helped over 6,000 families support family members addicted to drugs, and Assemblyman Jim Patterson recently recognized them as the 2021 Nonprofit of the Year.
Anderson said the opioid crisis in Fresno and Clovis is an ongoing battle starting in the late-90s, starting in 1998 with the rise of OxyContin. And now, with fentanyl overdoses on the rise, Anderson says both communities need to start listening.
“I had been talking about the fentanyl crisis five years ago…I love this community, but Fresno and Clovis haven’t been listening,” Anderson said.
The Clovis Police Department (Clovis PD) has also taken an active role in bringing awareness of the crisis while also trying to mitigate the distribution of opioids and fentanyl-related substances.
Special Enforcement Team (SET) Detective Jason Smoak, a member of Clovis PD since 2010, and his team specialize in narcotics, gangs, and vice crimes.
Smoak said he had seen an explosion of fentanyl in the last two years, both in the number of users and supply on the streets.
He said since the crackdown on prescription drugs on the street has made them harder to acquire, dealers have shifted to counterfeit pills because they can produce them effortlessly and inexpensively.
The SET has seized several forms of fentanyl, including patches, powder, and counterfeit pills bearing the M30 emblem.
“We work tirelessly, and anytime there’s any kind of a fentanyl case, it becomes one of the highest priorities because it is so dangerous,” Smoak said. “And if we have good leads to follow, we work tirelessly until we either exhaust all leads or can make arrests.”
During a news conference conducted by Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and several county officials —which PAIN and Clovis PD collaborate with— said they believe fentanyl and other opioids are the new epidemics in the Central Valley.
At the conference, Assistant Sheriff from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department John Zanoni said since 2018, the number of drug overdoses resulting in deaths has risen steadily.
According to the Fresno County Coroner’s office, overall deaths increased from 123 in 2018 to 164 in 2019 and 254 in 2020.
The fentanyl-related overdoses increased yearly from three to 15 to 35 over the last three years. And in 2021, coroners have confirmed 16 fentanyl drug overdoses, with 10 to 15 cases pending toxicology reports as of May 31.
In the previous year, overdose deaths among kids between the ages of 10 and 20 rose to 12.
Pertaining just to Clovis, Smoak said in 2021, 13 overdose recovery cases were suspected of being linked to fentanyl. That number is one overdose less than the City of Clovis had in 2020 and eight more than was reported in 2019.
“Those are just the ones that we know about. Those are just the ones that are reported,” Smoak said. “Many of those cases this year specifically involve teenagers.”
With a considerable rise in teenage addiction and overdoses, Anderson says parents need to fight the battle preemptively by becoming educated, aware and involved.
Anderson warns parents believing their children aren’t susceptible to drug use because they come from an upstanding family or live in an affluent neighborhood, or are in the best school district, leave themselves vulnerable.
Because of accessibility through technology and social media, Anderson feels parents need to be more involved than ever before.
In the past, people had to leave their homes, find a connection, and purchase drugs in person.
Now, dealers are prominently promoting and delivering supplies through Snapchat, Instagram, and Craigslist. Anderson says accessibility is making it a never-ending battle.
“People need to realize these kids, not all of them, are using…I never want to say that, but a good majority of kids experiment,” Anderson said. “Experimentation today will kill you.”
Anderson questions how many more children have to die before parents, school districts, and communities listen to city officials and take the crisis seriously.
“How many more have to die? Does it have to be the mayor’s kid or grandkid that dies? Does it have to be the principal’s kid or grandkid that dies before somebody does something,” Anderson said.
Smoak said he had been involved in numerous overdose recovery calls, where people both knew they were taking fentanyl or thought they were taking different drugs, but the pills were laced with fentanyl.
“You might get offered a pill…Or take a pill, but the next thing you know, you’re taking a fentanyl pill,” Smoak said. “And because it was homemade, you’re overdosing, and that can have extreme effects on your body up to including death.”
Even if drug use doesn’t result in death, Anderson says becoming addicted is just as worse and just as frightening.
Anderson understands what it is like to be consumed by opioids, as he was once addicted to Vicodin for 23 years, often taking 70 to 80 pills a day.
“I was pretty much the king of addiction,” Anderson said. “There’s nothing in addiction I didn’t do. I conned everybody, stole, cheated, and lied. I did all of it to get the drugs that I needed.”
Anderson says once a person begins using opioids, they build a tolerance after two weeks. For the user, it takes more drugs more frequently to receive the high they initially felt.
After building a tolerance, the drug needs to be a constant in that user’s life, or they’ll feel worse than they’ve ever felt.
Addiction leads to doctor shopping, and once that option is exhausted, addicts turn to friends and family. And finally, when all other options are gone, the user turns to street opiates and opioids manufactured by dealers with harmful ingredients and often laced with other drugs like fentanyl.
“They’re playing Russian roulette, especially today with fentanyl because cocaine is laced with fentanyl. Marijuana is laced with fentanyl. The fake press pills are laced with it. Even the real Norco, Vicodin and Percocet,” Anderson said.
Anderson says recovery rates in America range from seven to 10%. Even if an addict detoxes at a treatment facility, has a support system, and joins a recovery group, it still doesn’t cure the addiction. It only makes it manageable.
Managing addiction is something Anderson says is very difficult, and most don’t make it because managing the addiction becomes a part of the user’s life.
“Most of us don’t make it. And I’m not saying dying,” Anderson said. “If I went out and used it again, I wouldn’t come back…I have a relapse in me. I don’t have another recovery. It’s too hard.”
Anderson says recovering addicts have triggers that can quickly go off, and they are constantly fighting the urge to relapse and allowing their drug of choice to creep back into their system.
“What that drug tells us is that everything’s going to be okay,” Anderson said. “The drug says, ‘Come on, come back. It’s going to be okay. Guess what? I’m going to make all your troubles go away.’”
Smoak also said as a detective, he had seen opioids and fentanyl ruin many lives. He said even if someone taking the drugs never overdoses, the dangers of addiction are real because of how powerful the drugs are.
“It’s astounding. The dangers of using fentanyl don’t just have to be overdose and death,” Smoak said. “As soon as you start taking an opiate, it starts working on your brain to get your body to need it. And that’s why it’s so powerful.”
Anderson says parents suspecting their child is using drugs must be willing to confront their child, check their phones, and even drug test them, despite how drastic it may seem.
He said parents need to be aware of the warning signs that their child may be using or addicted, so they can get them the help they need as quickly as possible.
Anderson says if parents suspect their child has an addiction, they can contact PAIN, and the organization will devise a plan to get the family on the same page to get them help.
The goal is to get the child into a treatment facility, detox them and follow up with a recovery program.
For those suffering from addiction and who want help, Anderson says they should also contact PAIN.
“If you call us, again, we’re a referral group. So, we can guide you down that road…We can get you help,” Anderson said.
If they are afraid of the consequences of their parents finding out about their addiction, PAIN will work with them on talking with their parents, and most significantly, help refer them to a treatment facility that will save their life.
“They [teenagers] don’t think anything can happen to them. They have the Superman complex,” Anderson said. “These kids don’t realize that life is good. Life is worth living.