HESPERIA, Calif. (KABC) -- The fentanyl crisis in the High Deserts of the Inland Empire has been on a steady rise, and Congressman Jay Obernolte is pushing for change to help fight the growing concerns.
The congressman represents Hesperia and several other communities within San Bernardino County, where he says reports of fentanyl-related overdose deaths are becoming a regular and heartbreaking occurrence for families.
"I spoke to a constituent the other day who lost both of her sons on the same day to fentanyl. It's just heartbreaking what's going on," he said. "They thought it was an opioid. They were told it was opioid, and it had been laced with fentanyl. Both of them perished."
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, and when it's misused or mixed with other drugs, it can be highly lethal.
In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, overdoses of the potent drug rose to over 700 in 2021 -- more than 48 times higher than in 2016, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is approved to treat severe pain often associated with cancer and other diseases. The illegally manufactured fentanyl is often trafficked into the United States from other countries including China, India and Mexico.
"The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department reports that a majority of the fentanyl they're seizing is originating in Mexico. They've seen an over 100% increase in fentanyl seizures this year than last year," said Obernolte.
Obernolte says the southern border plays a key role in the flow of fentanyl coming into the U.S. where he says cartels are forcing migrants to smuggle drugs in return for safe passage.
"We have lost operational control of the border. In fact on the Mexico side, Customs and Border Patrol tells us that the cartels have operational control of the Mexico side of the border," he said.
A report by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) does show cartels in Mexico are responsible for the majority of fentanyl and other illegal drugs coming into the U.S. but does not point to migrants looking to enter the country as the ones responsible for smuggling. Most fentanyl seizures at the border are occurring at Ports of Entry.
Obernolte has co-sponsored several bills in the House aimed at tackling the fentanyl crisis. They include making fentanyl a schedule one drug, increasing funding for research to help detect and stop the flow of fentanyl, and making overdose deaths a felony murder for traffickers.
Locally, law enforcement agencies are trying to sweep the streets of the deadly drugs, but there is also an urgent need for more awareness.
"Parents needs to spread the message to their children that this is happening and a tiny, tiny amount of fentanyl in these pills can kill," said Obernolte.