A rash of recent drug overdoses, including two recent deaths, led the El Paso office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to issue a safety bulletin over Memorial Day weekend warning of possible increased dangers from synthetic opioids.
Two brothers died of drug overdoses at a home in Northeast El Paso on Monday, May 23. Later that week, nine people in El Paso were hospitalized with drug overdose symptoms within a 36-hour period, DEA officials said in a statement. They said the overdoses were likely caused by drugs mixed with a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl.
“We made the decision to put out the alert just over an abundance of caution, so people are aware that we’re seeing what we suspect — hasn’t been confirmed yet — but we suspect that there’s some kind of synthetic opioid mixed into it,” DEA spokesperson Carlos Briano said.
The manager of an El Paso addiction recovery program shared the DEA’s concerns about rising use of drugs that include fentanyl, often without the user’s knowledge.
“We’re getting a lot of people that are walking in, in pretty bad shape because of the fentanyl. Fentanyl is just too cheap and now getting mixed in in just about everything,” said Adan Dominguez, manager of Project Punto de Partido, a 24-hour opioid crisis center east of Downtown El Paso.
Data on drug overdoses in El Paso is spotty at best. But the available numbers all point to a worsening problem.
In 2021, the El Paso Fire Department deployed Narcan — a brand name of the overdose reversing drug Naloxone HCI — 531 times, an average of just more than 44 times per month. That was a 24% increase over 2020 and 52% over 2019.
The increasing presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been a key driver of El Paso’s overdose problem, Briano and Dominguez said.
The El Paso County medical examiner reported 64 overdose deaths involving fentanyl in 2021, an average of 4.5 deaths a month. That’s a 45% increase over 2020 and a 256% jump over 2019.
Fentanyl, which is about 50 times as potent as heroin, is cheap to manufacture. It often is mixed by drug dealers with other substances such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine or marijuana for a more intense high.
China was initially the primary source of illicit fentanyl in the United States via mail shipments, researchers have said. But increasingly, fentanyl is produced in Mexico using chemical precursors manufactured in China, and smuggled to the United States by drug cartels.
“It enhances the high, but it also severely increases the risk and the addiction,” Dominguez said.
“The use of it is just a lot more common and people are falling into that trap, especially those that aren’t really taking the precaution to look before they cross the street, before they take the drug. They’re just severely addicted and can’t stop and so they won’t ask questions,” he said.
Project Punto de Partido has distributed 10,000 doses of Narcan to people with addiction, places where people go to do drugs, and to El Paso police and sheriff officers. About 100 of those doses have been reported as used in the past year, but Dominguez said that’s an incomplete picture because of fear of alerting police.
“The fear of investigation makes the data collecting extremely hard. We really work to establish a trusting relationship with the individuals that we meet, especially out in the streets and seeing if they could let us know if they’ve used it,” Dominguez said.
“We’ve had one hotel out in the Northeast where we had seven cases in one week. They did report because they called us in panic to get more Narcan,” he said.
Project Punto de Partido uses a harm-reduction approach that focuses on getting people with addiction into treatment, while also trying to keep them safer while they use drugs.
One harm reduction technique is for people who are using drugs to first test them for fentanyl by using inexpensive test strips. But Project Punto de Partido has been cautioned against providing test strips because it could run afoul of Texas law, Dominguez said.
“We originally started distributing fentanyl test trips, but we’ve been also put on alert that may be considered paraphernalia,” he said.
Dominguez said individuals can order test strips by mail.
While his focus is on getting people with addiction into treatment, Dominguez also said people using drugs can take steps to avoid a fatal overdose.
“We’re trying to educate people not to use alone, not to use at the same time, have one go and then the other, if everything is safe, have Narcan standing by, test their stuff if they can,” he said.