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By Amy Neville
In the past several years, fentanyl has infiltrated the illicit drug market. For most of us who don’t use drugs recreationally, this seems like a benign fact. For parents with adolescents, the danger may seem like a distant mirage to ignore, but it’s a topic all parents must discuss with their children.
For the better part of a century, we witnessed a drug war that took its toll on the most vulnerable. Drug abuse occasionally ruined lives or very occasionally took lives. The stigma against drugs ignores the truth that a majority of Americans have tried drugs and a small but significant proportion regularly use and may become addicted.
With that in mind, many of us have been complacent in our view of illicit drugs. That complacency is also what killed my son, Alexander.
As 40-something parents, we thought we knew everything about the current drug landscape. Cannabis is stronger; pain killers and others are still around. We knew that, and we spoke with Alex about the dangers and worked hard to be there for him daily.
Alex was 14 and was just starting summer vacation after that rocky COVID-19 semester in 2020. He was supposed to go with me to an appointment one morning. When he didn’t come down from his room, I went to get him and instead found my baby motionless on the floor. My husband ran upstairs and began CPR until EMTs arrived—to no avail.
That was the first time we heard about illicit fentanyl.
After the deputy sheriff left with little more than condolences, my sister and a narcotics task force showed up to take inventory. We finally learned about the new drug landscape. There’s an analogy called the “chocolate chip cookie” to explain what happened.
Illicit fentanyl is mixed into nearly every illegal substance. Most cocaine and heroin, and some street marijuana, are laced with fentanyl. All pills outside of a pharmacy are guaranteed to have illicit fentanyl instead of whatever they’re pressed to look like.
Fentanyl is cheap and easy to produce, and it is considered 50 to 100 times stronger than opioids of the same weight. Adults can take 30-50 milligram pills of oxycodone, if prescribed. Fentanyl requires 1,000 times less to achieve the same feeling: 30-50 micrograms. At 2 milligrams, fentanyl can be lethal.
For drug cartels and legitimate pharmaceutical companies, the allure of fentanyl is inescapable. Traditional opioids have natural origins in the poppy plants. Production involves major risks and costs. Fentanyl, made in a lab, has very little risk, very little cost.
That’s where the chocolate cookie comes in. Again, it only takes a miniscule amount of fentanyl to achieve the same effects, so it’s important to mix thoroughly. FDA-approved medical use manufacturers have precision equipment to accomplish this task.
Black market entrepreneurs use wooden spoons like they’re making cookies. And just like when you mix a bag of chocolate chips into the batter, you cannot depend upon each cookie getting an even amount of chips.
Imagine the one in two adolescents who experiment with drugs. How do they know which drugs are safe? They don’t, and they can’t.
Of the 105,000 known U.S. drug-related deaths in 2021, the majority were attributed to illicit fentanyl. In the U.S., drug-related death is the greatest threat to the 18-49 age demographic—greater than heart disease, cancer, automobiles, and guns. Adolescents are currently the fastest growing demographic to be impacted by drug-overdose deaths.
Orange County has seen a rise in drug-related deaths from 2016 to 2021 of 1,600%—making fentanyl the single biggest killer of youth 17 years old and under.
The best solution is to educate and help move drug use out of its stigma so we can help. Many local high schools are offering education for parents and students, and ongoing conversations at home can save lives.
Any use of illicit drugs can now lead to death, even the first time a young person experiments. If you are concerned about someone’s substance use or you would like help with how to start a conversation, please contact the Wellness & Prevention Center at email@example.com.
Amy Neville is a yoga and fitness instructor, small business owner, president of Alexander Neville Foundation (ANF), and mother of two from Laguna Niguel. Alexander, her first-born son, lost his life from a fake prescription pill made of illicit fentanyl purchased via social media. Since losing her son, Amy has devoted her time to continuing to raise her daughter and bringing greater awareness of fentanyl to the general public.