Fifty Rio Arriba County residents died from drug overdoses during the one-year period ending in July, among the highest totals ever recorded in the county, according to provisional data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 50 overdose deaths were recorded for the one-year period spanning July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, and represent the federal government’s latest drug fatality total for Rio Arriba County as of Jan. 1, 2023, CDC officials said.

Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties recorded higher overdose death totals during the same period, logging 448 and 75 drug fatalities respectively, federal data shows. 

While fatal overdose counts in neighboring counties were higher than Rio Arriba County's total, the latter had a higher death rate from drugs, records show. 

In 2021, the last year for which complete CDC data was available, Rio Arriba County recorded 45 drug overdose deaths among residents, records show. Previous annual death totals compiled by the CDC for the county were 38 in 2020; 25 in 2019; 31 in 2018; and 30 in 2017.

The highest drug death number recorded by the CDC during any recent one-year period in Rio Arriba County was 51, recorded during the twelve months spanning Aug. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, records show.

"Fentanyl is primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States, and New Mexico is not immune to that national trend," said David Morgan, spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health.

For decades, Rio Arriba County has seen annual drug overdose death rates well above the state and national averages, data shows. From 2013 to 2017, the county’s average overdose death rate was 89.9 deaths per 100,000 residents.

For the one-year period ending June 30, 2022, the county’s overdose death rate was 123.8 per 100,000 residents, according to CDC and U.S. Census data.

In Bernalillo County, New Mexico’s most populous county, 448 residents died from drug overdoses in the one-year period ending June 30, provisional CDC data shows. 

In 2021, the last year for which complete CDC data was available, 472 Bernalillo County residents died of drug overdoses. Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city, is in the county.

For the one-year period ending June 30, 2022, the overdose death rate in Bernalillo County was 66.2 per 100,000 residents, according to CDC and U.S. Census data.

In Santa Fe County, 75 residents died from drug overdoses during the one-year period ending June 30, according to CDC data. In 2021, the county recorded 82 drug overdose deaths among residents, records show.

For the one-year period ending June 30, 2022, the overdose death rate in Santa Fe County was 48.4 per 100,000 residents, according to CDC and U.S. Census data.

The provisional CDC data provides an official record of local overdose deaths over a rolling 12-month period. Drug death data for the second half of 2022 has not been finalized, according to the CDC. 

Provisional drug overdose data is often incomplete and can reflect an undercount, according to the CDC, since causes of death may still be pending investigation. The overdose death totals for Rio Arriba, Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties are based on New Mexico mortality records sent to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Nationwide, more than 107,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in the one-year period ending in July, according to the CDC. The agency estimated there were 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. 2021, an increase of nearly 15 percent from the 93,655 deaths estimated in 2020.

The historic increases in drug deaths, both locally and nationally, are the result of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, which began showing up in local drug supplies around 2013, authorities said.

Since 2020, dealers have flooded the Española Valley and other parts of New Mexico with blue and multi-color “rainbow” pills containing fentanyl, an opioid exponentially more powerful than heroin, according to police and the DEA.

Most fentanyl pills sold locally cost around $10 to $20 each and are manufactured by two Mexican drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to the DEA. Both cartels use clandestine laboratories, industrial-sized tablet presses and sophisticated processing methods to turn fentanyl precursor chemicals—typically sourced from China—into saleable product.

Ovidio Guzmán, the son of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, was arrested Jan. 5 during a Mexican government operation in which 29 people were killed among cartel and government forces. Guzmán, until his arrest, was believed to be a high-ranking leader in a cartel faction specializing in fentanyl. The U.S. government considered Guzmán a top fentanyl trafficker and had called for his arrest.

With fentanyl pills relatively easy to procure, Española Police are making near-weekly seizures of the drug. A man sleeping in the parking lot of an Española Dairy Queen was arrested with 671 multi-color fentanyl pills, cocaine and a loaded .22 caliber pistol on Jan. 9, police said. 

On Dec. 13, police said they caught a man carrying large amounts of blue fentanyl pills, as well as methamphetamine, while shoplifting at an Española Walmart Supercenter.

The local drug addiction crisis—fueled by cartel producthas evolved rapidly in recent years, according to Phillip Fiuty, harm reduction program director at The Mountain Center, an organization that provides overdose-prevention education, treatment referrals, clean syringe exchanges and other services to drug users in Rio Arriba County and rural northern parts of Santa Fe County.

Fiuty said most local drug users transitioned from heroin to heroin mixed with fentanyl, then moved on to the current drug combination being pushed by dealers: fentanyl pills etched with the marking “M-30,” in imitation of 30-milligram OxyContin pills, which they typically smoke in tandem with methamphetamine.

“Methamphetamine use has skyrocketed right alongside fentanyl,” said Fiuty, who is also a member of New Mexico’s Overdose Prevention and Pain Management Advisory Council, a body charged with reviewing the state’s overdose prevention and pain management standards. “Fentanyl showed up and almost entirely displaced heroin. Now, most people are co-using methamphetamine with fentanyl.”

According to a 2021 report by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, fentanyl and methamphetamine have surpassed heroin and prescription opioids as the leading causes of overdose deaths in the state. Combined, fentanyl and methamphetamine contributed to 78 percent of drug overdose deaths in New Mexico in 2020, the last year for which complete co-use data was available.

In 2021, at least 32,856 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. involved a psychostimulant such as methamphetamine, up from 24,576 deaths in 2020, federal data shows. Around 20 percent of all fatal overdoses in the U.S. in 2021 involved both an opioid and a psychostimulant.

Illegal and highly addictive, methamphetamine is known to worsen mental health conditions and cause erratic behavior. It is commonly used by addicts in the Española Valley to counteract the sedative effects of fentanyl, a drug that induces drowsiness. But using the drugs together can make treating addiction much more difficult, experts said.

Medications like Suboxone, which are used to treat opioid addiction and ease withdrawal symptoms, tend to be less effective for patients with a high tolerance for fentanyl. Treatment options for methamphetamine, meanwhile, are limited, with no approved medications for treatment currently available. The drug has usually cost around $10 a gram depending on where it is purchased, according to a 2019 government analysis.

Heroin also remains a major problem in Rio Arriba County, where a gram of the powder can cost as little as $5 or $10, authorities said.

As for the fentanyl pills flooding the Española Valley, the products are so addictive that users must smoke or inject them almost continuously to ward off debilitating withdrawal, Fiuty said.

“What people are telling us with the fentanyl is, they have to use it all day, every day,” said Fiuty, whose organization runs a mobile outreach center based in Española. “It’s very short-acting, and most people have switched from injecting to smoking [fentanyl] in our community and around the state. It knocks them out and, half an hour later, they’re in withdrawal again and have to do more.”

“We have people who don’t want to go to a shelter or to treatment because of the frequency with which they have to use them," Fiuty said of fentanyl pills.

He added that local drug users who receive life-saving medications like naloxone—the opioid overdose reversal drug—are faring better than those without access to street-level care. Naloxone, which is administered nasally to revive overdosing opioid users, is routinely used by first-responders and others in Rio Arriba County to save lives, authorities said. 

Addiction researchers see multiple factors driving the U.S. addiction crisis, including untreated mental illness and the effects of poverty. 

Addiction researchers and U.S. public health officials have used the term "deaths of despair" to describe fatalities like drug overdoses and suicides, which they argue are driven in part by economic misery and its effects in impoverished parts of the U.S.

In Rio Arriba County, over 20 percent of residents live in poverty, census data shows. The percentage of residents living beneath the poverty line is lower in both Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties, where around 15 and 12 percent of the population live in poverty, respectively, federal data shows.

The official poverty line for a one-person household in the U.S. in 2021 was around $14,000, according to the U.S. Census. Around 11.6 percent of Americans were living beneath that line in 2021, the last year for which nationwide data was available.

According to drug treatment experts, county and state health officials can help drive down overdose numbers in Rio Arriba County by expanding access to intensive outpatient treatment programs, mobile outreach programs and suboxone and methadone treatment, which are proven to help patients overcome addiction and prevent fatal overdoses.

New Mexico’s Overdose Prevention and Pain Management Advisory Council has also advocated for an expansion of access to medication-assisted addiction treatment in local jails and state prisons.

Federal research shows prisoners and jail inmates released in the U.S. are between 10 to 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than the general population. People released from New Mexico corrections facilities die at an estimated rate 11 times higher than the general public, state data shows.

Morgan, of the state Department of Health, said the state has made strides in combating the drug crisis in recent years. 

New Mexico in 2014 became the first state to enable pharmacists to prescribe naloxone, a policy that has since expanded to include outpatient treatment programs, according to Morgan.

State policies also made it easier for Medicaid recipients to receive addiction treatment with suboxone and expanded the number of methadone clinics in New Mexico, including the number of clinics that accept Medicaid.

In December, the New Mexico Attorney General's Office said it resolved its opioid litigation against retail pharmacy chain operators Walmart, CVS, and Albertsons in a deal that will deliver more than $132 million to the state and local governments to fight the drug crisis. The money was to be made available within 90 days of the settlement announcement, attorneys said.

Rio Arriba County Manager Lucia Sánchez said the county will work to ensure its share of the settlement money goes toward life-saving anti-addiction efforts. It was not immediately clear Sunday how much money the county would receive.

"We want to put a concentrated effort into prevention, education and outreach in communities," Sánchez said. "We empathize with the families who have lost people to addiction.”

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-Santa Fe), whose congressional district includes Rio Arriba County and parts of Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties, said the overdose death numbers reflected "a health care crisis that we have ignored for generations."

"We have criminalized the people who are suffering, when that is not the right way to go," said Leger Fernandez, who lost two brothers to addiction-related deaths. "We have failed over decades to provide adequate facilities where you can go and get treatment, where you can get treatment without stigma, where you can have access to a bed [in a treatment program] if you need it. And we don't do that. I lost two brothers to addiction, and we spent years and countless nights crying and working on trying to find beds for them. And they weren't available. Here we are decades later, and we still do not have adequate treatment facilities."

Leger Fernández said she is working to change that by helping to expand access to addiction treatment in her district. She said the U.S. must also increase seizures of drug shipments at the U.S.—Mexico border crossings, increase criminal penalties for drug traffickers and "create the tools that law enforcement needs to stop the flow of drugs." 

"We need a concerted effort and coordination between federal and state and local [government], both in treatment and funding the law enforcement aspect of going after those who are profiting from our pain," said the congresswoman, who cited the role Mexican drug cartels and Chinese chemical producers play in the U.S. drug crisis. "Because they are profiting from our deaths."  

(1) comment

Herman Factor

Here in Rio Arriba we have places like Delancey Street , where people with addictions learn how to live a better life based on hard work and networking, is free to its residents and to no cost to the tax payers or any government agencies is a hard place but the pay off is worth it, the more we enable addicts the worse it will get

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