Michael Marquesen first noticed about a year ago that fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid had hit the streets of Los Angeles. People suddenly started overdosing after they shot up a new white powder that dealers promised would give them a powerful high.
“In Hollywood, they’re like ‘Everybody’s dropping … everybody’s overdosing!’” said Marquesen, director of the Los Angeles Community Health Project which provides support services for people dealing with drug addiction.
The white powder was easily distinguishable from the black, tar-like heroin that is common in California, and users initially believed it was high-end heroin. But it was fentanyl — 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin — said Marquesen, whose group runs a mobile needle exchange out of a white van, serving drug users all over the city.
The deadly fentanyl wave sweeping the East Coast and the Midwest has arrived in California. The number of deaths from fentanyl in the state, though still a fraction of those seen in some other states, has spiked in recent years. And state health officials have responded with a proactive but experimental policy: Since last May, they have supplied needle exchanges with rapid-response test strips that allow drug users to determine if their next high is contaminated with the potentially fatal opioid.
It’s hard for drug users to know exactly what is mixed into their supply, because dealers don’t tell them—and often don’t know themselves. Needle exchange workers say the strips have revealed the presence of fentanyl not only in white powder form but also as an additive to black-tar heroin and even in such non-opioids as methamphetamine and crack/cocaine.
Officials hope that if people know the dangers lurking in their stash, they’ll be more careful to protect themselves from accidental overdoses.