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Enough! Santa Barbara County law enforcement, community leaders unite to take on opioid crisis

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"Project Opioid" in Santa Barbara County is trying to tackle the ongoing surge in drug deaths in the county, especially the spike in fentanyl use.

A Santa Barbara mother, who lost 22-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose, is part of the campaign, saying no other parent should have to feel this type of pain.

It’s pain no parent should have to endure.

But, Stephanie Forrester OF Santa Barbara has been in agony for the last three months. Her 22-year-old son died of a fentanyl overdose.

"You know, I do a lot of the why me? Why Justin? Why this drug?." said Forrester. "It's hard for me to believe my son is gone."

Forrester says her son suffered a bad leg injury three years ago, when he was 19. He took prescription opioids to deal with the pain. But, when she didn’t know at first was that it also opened the door to opioid addiction.

He went to rehab, and she thought Justin was doing better. But three years ago, she got a phone call which shattered her world.

"He had been sober, and doing well," said Forrester. "I got a call from his roommate, and rushed over. He had passed away."

Justin’s death is part of what’s become a national crisis. 106,000 people died from drug overdoses in America during a one-year period from 2020 to 2021. That’s a 16% increase from the year before. And, much of that is driven by a huge spike in the use of the drug fentanyl.

Santa Barbara County has also seen huge increases in overdose deaths during the last few years, with 133 in the most recent reporting year.

It prompted Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff, and community leaders to launch Project Opioid. It’s a countywide approach to tackling the crisis patterned after a successful program in Florida.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown says a just-released 21 page report shows the extent of the crisis, and how fentanyl is fueling the situation. While he says going after dealers is important, much of the plan is focused on prevention.

"Make people aware, educate people about the problem, educate people about resources that are available if they have an addiction problem, or if a loved one has an addiction problem," said Brown.

The Sheriff says one key step is making a drug which can counter opioid overdoses readily available.

The education effort is key. Many people don’t know how dangerous fentanyl can be. Many dealers mix it with other drugs because it’s cheap, and easy to make.

"it really comes down to economics...fentanyl is incredibly ease to produce," said Dr. Kendall Cortelyou, with Florida’s Project Opioid. She helped develop Santa Barbara County’s Project Opioid report, which is intended to serve as a blueprint to try to tackle the problem in the county.

Again, fentanyl is playing an increasingly major role in what are often drug cocktails causing deaths. In many cases, people don’t realize what they are actually taking.

Stephanie Forrester is still struggling to cope with the death of her 22-year-old son, Justin, in February from a fentanyl overdose. She’s helping with the county’s new Project Opioid, because she doesn’t want another parent to experience what she’s facing.

"I know has changed, and it will never be the same. That's why I'm here to be an advocate," said Forrester. "I'm hoping that my son is watching over me, and is proud of what I'm doing."