4 Investigates: How do we overcome the fentanyl crisis?

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Miranda Lopez embraces everything about where she grew up, even the drug addiction she saw among family and friends. It now fuels her career.

“Española will always have that number one place in my heart,” Lopez said. “What really led me to this was seeing family members go through active drug addiction, and, you know, from there it kind of just hit hard in my heart.”

Lopez works with the Drug Enforcement Agency as a New Mexico public health analyst. Meth, heroin, cocaine – she’s fought it all. But nothing comes close to the war on fentanyl.

“It’s hard to even put into words the destruction it has taken on our state compared to heroin, which was the opioid we were mostly dealing with, you know,” Lopez said. “A pill, even sometimes half a pill, will end a life.”

Fentanyl is a hundred times more potent than morphine and fifty times more potent than heroin.

“Española has actually gained national attention just within the recent weeks,” Lopez said. “The reason it got the attention is due to the fact of how many overdoses occurred there within 2021, especially fatal overdoses, which was 50.”

Lopez works with local law enforcement to identify new solutions. Narcan kits are perhaps the most valuable short-term option – the medication can overcome a fentanyl overdose.

First responders have a seemingly endless supply.

“At the end of the day, it could be bringing your loved one back to life,” Lopez said.

The new threat is xylazine, that could undo all the success of Narcan.

“When we received that first positive case, it was absolutely, I could say, terrifying, for myself,” Lopez said. “So xylazine, also known as tranq, actually just made its way into New Mexico.”

Lopez said that cartels are lacing fentanyl – and other drugs – with an animal tranquilizer approved for veterinary use only. It’s making the fentanyl crisis even more lethal.

“Individuals are having to dose less,” Lopez said. “So, you know, it’s definitely more potent and probably more addictive or it increases the addictiveness. On the other note, however, is not responsive to naloxone.”

So how do we get in front of the tranq threat – and the overall fentanyl epidemic? All the players say it’s going to take teamwork at every level – federal, state, local, and at home.

First – enforcement.

“By enforcement, I mean enforcing the arrests and going after the drug traffickers,” said Renee Dolan, a drug intelligence officer with New Mexico HIDTA. “It’s not about going after the users.”

After enforcement, comes education and prevention – which even involves the National Guard. Its drug outreach task force goes into schools and tries to reach young people before dealers get to them.

Law enforcement officers are being honest about the high probability that any pill at any party or any street corner could be laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl.

“People are using 20 to 30 pills at a time to get their high,” said Maj. Lorenzo Aguilar with the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s what we’ve been told by people that we arrest.”

Treatment is also key for fighting fentanyl. KOB 4 visited three treatment facilities in Rio Arriba County. However, they aren’t detox centers, which is a critical – and lacking – first step in recovery.

In addition to that, there is nothing keeping patients from leaving, like at Darrin’s Place in Española. The temptation to go from refuge to reuse is terribly close.

“An apartment complex across the street was notorious for overdoses homicides, for a lot of drug activity, criminal activity,” Aguilar said. “And it’s just within walking distance of this treatment facility right here.”

KOB 4 found a dozen bills or memorials targeting fentanyl in some way during this last legislative session.

Only five are now law – including half a million in the budget going to drug enforcement projects, the official creation of Fentanyl Awareness Day, and the creation of an opioid settlement fund. Nothing else made it to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 60 would have enhanced sentencing for fentanyl traffickers. The bill never got out of committee, nor did House Bill 212, a bipartisan effort to add a drug trafficking and firearm penalty.

Those on the fentanyl front lines worry what this crisis could be like in New Mexico a year from now, if we don’t invest in more ways to fight it.

“None of us here can be siloed,” Lopez said. “At the end of the day, we are here to tackle the issue head on, together.”

Click here to go to New Mexico HIDTA’s site, where you can find a list of resources providing more information on fentanyl along with addiction help.

To see part one of this investigation, click here.