The number one drug seized in SLO County is now fentanyl

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — While San Luis Obispo County has been named the “Happiest Place in America,” we are not immune to the pandemic that is fentanyl. 

Atascadero News sat with San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson to discuss what the fentanyl crisis looks like in our county and the danger it presents. 

What is Fentanyl?


Originally developed as an intravenous anesthetic in 1959, fentanyl “is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic,” according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

The synthetic opioid is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

There is the pharmaceutical fentanyl — legally prescribed by a doctor to treat severe pain and then there is illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is illegally manufactured and smuggled into the United States. 

According to the DEA, fentanyl is primarily sold as a powder or in pill form to look like legitimate opioids, but can also be seen as a nasal spray form. It produces an intense, short-term high that can easily result in seizures and death due to its high potency and ability to be easily disguised.

According to the CDC, over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. And the DEA states “two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. DEA analysis has found counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 milligrams (more than twice the lethal dose) of fentanyl per tablet.”

Some common street names used for fentanyl are Apace, China Girl, China Town, China White, Dance Fever, and Goodfellas.

Where Does Fentanyl Come From?

With the ingredients used to make fentanyl illegal in the United States, China sits as one of the primary sources of the drug. In recent years, Bejing and the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR) have placed more restrictions on the chemicals used to make the opioid, leading to Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) becoming a source of manufacturing for it. It is then through Mexico that fentanyl is smuggled into the United States. 

But there is recent evidence to show India as an emerging source for finished fentanyl powder and fentanyl precursor chemicals.

Fentanyl Crisis in SLO County

Parkinson measures the severity of the fentanyl crisis in two ways — one by the number of fentanyl seized and two through overdose deaths.

“Nearly all of our overdose deaths are related to fentanyl,” said Parkinson. “We are getting them in mass bunches where we have two, three people dead at once.”

Parkinson explains the SLO County narcotics unit seizes various amounts of fentanyl weekly — it is now the primary drug seized in our county. The presence of fentanyl first appeared in SLO County in 2018 with three overdoses. It then progressed to 12 cases in 2019, 34 cases in 2020, and 120 cases in 2021.

The attraction to fentanyl comes from its price point being lower than heroin or meth, with 50 to 100 times the potency. Within our county, overdoses come from victims taking opioids off the street that are unknowingly laced with fentanyl. Or they can happen when a victim comes out of rehab and consumes the same dosage of the drug prior to their treatment. Having now a lower tolerance to the drug, they end up overdosing.

According to Parkinson, his office sees fentanyl primarily in pill form. The cost ranges from approximately $80 to $120 per gram in the county and varies between $600 to $900 an ounce. However, the price of it all depends on purity, smuggling exposure, etc. Fentanyl is typically sold in bulk and not by pill. 

Fentanyl has become so prevalent in the county that now all deputies are carrying Narcan — a nasal spray used to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. Parkinson’s deputies have been issuing Narcan doses on a bi-weekly basis, but he notices it being used more and more. Soon, Narcan will be available in all public places within the county. 

With the drug being so easy to hide and it taking so little of it to create a high, fentanyl has even become a prominent problem in the SLO County Jail. However, the deadly tentacles of fentanyl have reached farther than just the jails and streets of our county.

In March 2020, a fentanyl-laced Percacet resulted in the death of 19-year-old Atascadero resident Emilio Velci. In July of this year, the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles indicted Timothy Clark Wolfe, 24, of Paso Robles on the charge of selling the fentanyl to Velci. The case will be tried in federal court.

In February 2021, a 7-month-old female infant died as a result of exposure to fentanyl and methamphetamine. Parents of the child, 38-year-old Shawn Luhm, and his wife, 31-year-old Kayla Luhm, were arrested for cruelty to a child with possible injury or death. Melissa Currie, 36, of Atascadero was also arrested as an accessory for willful cruelty to a child with possible injury or death for her involvement in the crime. 

In April 2022, Julian Ackerman, 31, of Coalinga was arrested for bringing a kilo (approximately 2.2 pounds) of fentanyl into SLO County. Deputies reported that “according to the DEA, a lethal dose of fentanyl is two milligrams. So one kilo of pure fentanyl contains approximately 500,000 lethal doses.”

In June 2022, deputies arrested Brynn Leanne Maddox, 28, of San Luis Obispo for child endangerment after fentanyl was found in her home and her 5-year-old daughter tested positive for the drug in her system.

Recently, fentanyl has claimed the life of a 13-year-old female from Arroyo Grande — one of the youngest lives claimed by the drug. 

So how do residents and the public combat the crisis of fentanyl?

“We start at the border,” said Parkinson. “That’s where it’s coming [from], and we have an open border. They are seizing record numbers.”

Another way to fight the pandemic of fentanyl is to one, never take a pill that does not come from a pharmacy, and two, have an honest conversation with your children. While someone may not intentionally want to be taking fentanyl, there are high chances that opioids off the street contain deadly amounts of it.

“It pretty much boils down to it [fentanyl] has flooded the market and it has caused a huge spike in deaths,” warns Parkinson.