Nicole Norwood grew up as a fairly average youth in the Santa Clarita Valley, she said.
She occasionally drank beer and smoked a bit of pot. But her life began spiraling into the abyss at 18, when she was prescribed opioids as painkillers after emerging from surgery.
She quickly plunged into a heroin addiction, which, over eight years of use, would seem, for most, like the final chapter in a sad cautionary tale, having lost her friends, her family and, most recently, her 5-year-old son.
But the decline for Norwood worsened beyond heroin, which rehab professionals would not have believed possible two years ago, with the arrival of a stronger, more potent, more coveted drug — fentanyl.
“Fentanyl — ask any junkie,” Norwood said Tuesday. “It’s like heroin on steroids.”
Norwood followed eight years of heroin addiction with two years addicted to fentanyl. She was caught using the synthetic drug at rehab last month and she was kicked out, ending up in the hospital.
On Tuesday, Norwood, now 30, was released from the Behavioral Health Unit at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.
From the hospital, she was taken back to a rehab facility in Piru and placed at the center of a group session of rehab residents who told her they felt betrayed by her lies, and they didn’t want her there if she wasn’t serious about getting clean.
She is serious, she said, after the group left her alone in the room.
Speaking curled up on a wooden chair, feet crossed, legs crossed, arms folded around her knees, she’s serious, she said, because she’s serious about getting her son back.
She said her son is with her parents, who want nothing to do with her.
She’s going to show them, she said. She’s going to show her rehab peers and everyone else by June 24, her day in family court.
“I can walk away with my son that day if I have everything done,” she said.
Only one thing stands in her way.
“My brain, my thoughts,” she said, tapping the side of her head, trying to describe the voices that demand fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Initially developed as a pain management drug for cancer patients, fentanyl is now often added to heroin, according to the DEA website, to increase its potency or to disguise it as highly potent heroin.
“Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl — which often results in overdose death,” the DEA website reads, noting clandestinely produced fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico.
Fentanyl in SCV
Cary Quashen, founder of Action Family Counseling on Soledad Canyon Road, who runs the rehab in Piru and picked Norwood up from the hospital, fears the emerging trend of cutting fentanyl with heroin will kill SCV kids and put more on the path Norwood has been on since 2017.
In April 2017, two years ago, almost to the day, seven people showed up in the emergency room of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital with overdoses of opiates, prompting an impromptu news conference at the hospital next day.
Since then, the drug has claimed more SCV victims, Quashen said.
“I, personally, have dealt with more than half a dozen fentanyl addicts,” he said Thursday.
One of the drug users Quashen has encountered was 19-year-old Dorian Bauguess-Garcia, of Newhall, who died March 31.
While Bauguess-Garcia’s cause of death has not yet been officially confirmed, his mother, Rosalie Bauguess, is advocating that parents take action if they suspect their children are doing drugs.
“No effort is too much, and there’s nothing too invasive when it comes to saving lives,” she said.
“I believe so,” Quashen said, noting toxicology tests that would confirm his suspicion are not expected for another six months.
Was fentanyl to blame for Dorian Bauguess-Garcia’s death?
Other overdose victims have died in Santa Clarita, he said.
“Usually, I don’t hear about what drug it is,” he said. “I just go to the funeral.”
The indicators are there, however, to suggest the fentanyl/heroin epidemic is growing, he said.
A gram of “black heroin” goes for $60 on the street in the SCV. The potency of fentanyl has pushed heroin to the back seat, Norwood said.
“I can get heroin for $60 or I can get heroin cut with fentanyl for $160,” she said.
The top-of-the-line product for heroin addicts, however, is pure fentanyl, which costs about $200 a gram.
Local drug enforcement officials who monitor the use of fentanyl in the SCV say the drug is not commonplace at the moment.
“It’s not that prevalent here,” said Detective William Zelek, who leads the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team, or J-Team.
“It’s not as widespread like it is back East,” he said.
How bad is fentanyl addiction in the eastern United States?
On April 17, 2018, which is about a year after drug cops shared a warning about fentanyl with Los Angeles County officials, a joint forces operation of the DEA and other agencies on the East Coast dismantled a major multistate heroin- and fentanyl-distribution network.
More than 100 arrests were made.
“Our great country has never seen drug deaths like we’re seeing today,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time.
On Wednesday, Attorney General William P. Barr unveiled details of a crackdown that netted 60 arrests, across 11 federal districts, including 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners, and seven other licensed medical professionals, suspected of prescribing and distributing opioids.
“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” Barr said.
LASD on fentanyl
Former LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell held a fentanyl-awareness news conference last summer, describing how part of the problem is when people receive prescriptions to these dangerously addictive medications, which they don’t know how to stop taking, due to dependency issues that develop.
“Sadly, many patients who legitimately receive prescription opioid medication for chronic pain, such as hydrocodone or oxycodone, become addicted,” McDonnell said.
“When the script runs out, they may turn to illegally obtained drugs like heroin and fentanyl to attain the same or similar feelings of pain relief and intoxication,” he said.
Norwood said she was prescribed oxycodone but when her prescription ran out, a friend brought her heroin.
“As the result of eight overdoses, which included one death, occurring within a 72-hour timeframe in late April 2017, in the Santa Clarita Valley area, Narcotics Bureau detectives conducted four separate investigation operations,” McDonnell said.
The operation netted six arrests, the seizure of 20 ounces of heroin, $10,000 in cash and two cars with hidden traps to conceal the narcotics. One package of heroin was found laced with fentanyl.
“We need to understand what is driving the addictions,” said McDonnell, “and equip ourselves with the knowledge and the means, to prevent the opioid and heroin epidemic which has devastated the Northeast and parts of the Midwest from taking root in L.A. County.”
The other motivator behind McDonnell’s fentanyl awareness conference was the sheer number of people dying from the drug.
In 2016, synthetic opioids, primarily illegal fentanyl, passed prescription opioids as the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
That same year, synthetic opioids were involved in nearly half the opioid-related deaths, up 14% in 2010. In terms of people dying from the drug, the number of fatalities rose from 3,007 to 19,413 deaths in six years.
Nicole Norwood is striving to avoid adding one more death to that number. What’s the biggest challenge she faces during rehab?
She tapped the side of her head, and said: “My brain, my thoughts.”