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Guest commentary: We can stop opioid addiction’s deadly march. Here’s how to start

A bag of fentanyl-laced pills seized by law enforcement.
(Courtesy of U.S. attorney’s office)

After almost 40 years of helping people recover from addiction, many of them fellow La Jollans, I must concede that we have entered a new and deadlier era of drug abuse, and the main catalyst has been the availability of fentanyl.

During the pandemic, San Diego County published stark numbers about the three overdose deaths per day (in September 2020) and noted that the number of overdoses had spiked more than 50 percent over the previous year.

And then things got really bad.

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics recently published individual state data on overdoses, with California leading the country in the number of overdose deaths. More than 70 percent of these deaths involve an opioid, and increasingly the culprit is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is frequently mixed with other street drugs.

Fentanyl was created to be used as a sedative for surgeries or for people in severe pain, such as with Stage 4 cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin.

Young people in San Diego County, like around the United States, have been succumbing to fentanyl overdoses in record numbers. But many of the overdose deaths are the result of teenagers using other substances — such as cocaine, Percocet, Adderall or ecstasy — that they don’t realize have fentanyl mixed in. During the pandemic, many young adults were isolated and away from work and school, so “idle hands” led to experimentation that all too often turned deadly.

We must embrace “harm reduction” methods to make a dent in the opioid epidemic. Some nonprofits offer strips that can test drugs for the presence of fentanyl. Then the user can decide whether to take it and in what quantity.

Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug, is also available. It is administered into the nose, like an inhaler. Carrying this drug can help prevent fatal overdoses, but when it’s a drug like fentanyl, reversal may require multiple doses of Narcan.

For many, these harm reduction strategies are a source of cognitive dissonance. They might ask, “Aren’t we condoning the abuse of opioids by making fentanyl test strips and Narcan available?” The simple fact is that you can’t treat someone who has already died, and these tools have been shown to save lives.

I can’t overemphasize the urgency with which you should address a substance abuse problem, especially if street drugs are being used that may contain fentanyl. The result of using fentanyl-laced drugs is deadly so often that every use should be considered potentially fatal.

The good news is that substance addiction is a predictable beast, and the path to recovery is well-worn.

In the past, when alcohol was the main drug abused and fatal overdoses weren’t such a grave concern, 12-step support groups were a great starting point for the substance abuser to learn about recovery. The most popular 12-step groups are Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

But due to the high risk inherent in every use of an opioid, work with a trained drug counselor is recommended. When I get a call from a concerned family member of someone who is slipping deeper into drug abuse, I have a proven playbook to get that person started toward recovery. It can sometimes require an intervention, a process through which we organize the loved ones of the substance-using person and offer the gift of treatment.

If you are concerned about your substance use or that of a loved one, you can contact me directly at (619) 993-2738. Confidential Recovery, my outpatient treatment program in San Diego, specializes in helping executives, veterans and first responders get sober and stay that way.

“I don’t want to go to funerals,” Scott Silverman says in explaining his drive to help people dealing with addiction.

Another great resource is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration treatment locator. This government resource catalogs providers in every city. It also has a toll-free number that is staffed around the clock.

The process of recovery might not be easy, but it is simple. It can be unfathomable to users in the throes of addiction, but once they start recovering, momentum builds from every positive decision, and soon their lives get better than they imagined possible.

The disease of addiction is deadly, but the solution is waiting. Get started today!

Scott Silverman is a La Jolla resident and author of “The Opioid Epidemic: What You Don’t Know Will Destroy Your Family and Your Life.” In 2014, he founded Confidential Recovery, a drug treatment program in San Diego that specializes in helping adults achieve long-term recovery. He was addicted to alcohol and drugs when he “hit bottom” and pursued treatment in 1984. He has been helping others recover from addiction ever since. To reach Confidential Recovery, call (619) 452-1200 or visit confidentialrecovery.com. ◆