Acknowledging that his office's approach to halting the flow of illegal drugs has been ineffective, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen on Wednesday announced that he's disbanded the traditional narcotics unit in favor of a different approach.
"The traditional way of handling illegal drugs has for too long been ineffective, costly and had a destructive and disproportionate effect on communities of color," Rosen said.
Instead, the new Major Crime and Drug Trafficking Unit will focus on prosecuting cartels and large-scale major criminal groups and syndicates, Rosen said.
In addition, Santa Clara County leaders will ask the Board of Supervisors to form a new working group to address ways to combat the spread of the opioid drug fentanyl, which has caused a 61.4% increase in county deaths from 2019 to 2020.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez and Rosen said on Wednesday during a press conference that they will make a referral to the board on Feb. 8 for the working group.
Rosen said there's been a 148% increase in both misdemeanors and felonies related to these drugs from 2020 to Nov. 1, 2021. Emergency room visits due to opioid overdoses increased by 57.9% from 2019 to 2020 in Santa Clara County, according to county data.
The number of deaths from illegal chemical products has grown dramatically in the past four years from 11 in 2018 to 106 in 2021.
"That's more than two every week," Rosen said.
Chavez noted these increases and the impacts on communities are alarming.
"These overdose cases have to be stopped, and swiftly. We have to use all the resources we can to protect life," Chavez said.
People of all socioeconomic backgrounds are dying from the opioid drug, from Gilroy to Palo Alto.
"It's been an equal-opportunity threat to our community," she said.
The largest group of people being affected are ages 18 to 25, but there are now cases in middle and high schools, she said. In 2020, a 12-year-old girl took part of a pill and died within minutes. A 16-year-old boy was recently arrested for selling her the drug, they noted.
Rosen and Chavez in recent weeks have interviewed addicts, drug counselors and others. "What we saw and heard was devastating," he said.
Rosen's office is also launching a social media fentanyl campaign to inform younger residents of illicit fentanyl pills that are made to look like other prescription drugs, offer treatment for addiction and share resources for families.
The most common fentanyl pill form coming into Santa Clara County are M-30s. Fentanyl is an opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. It was developed for managing the pain of cancer patients and was applied as a patch on the skin, but it has been diverted for abuse because of its powerful properties.
Fentanyl can also be used as a replacement or cutting agent for other drugs, Chavez noted.
"People have no idea what they are getting from dealers or on the streets," she said.