As a result of a national settlement with the makers of opioids, there will be billions of dollars available to try to reverse the opioid crisis in the United States, which began in the 1990s and was responsible for more than 75,000 deaths nationwide in the last 12-month period measured by the CDC. Tragically, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analysis of data from the CDC showed that deaths involving fentanyl among high schoolers ages 14-18 grew 169% in 2020 — more than any other age group that year.
There are, of course, differing opinions on how to best spend this money and on what. But most people would agree that education is critical — and the sooner, the better for young people old enough to understand the dangers of the use of psychoactive substances.
Within the overall class of opioids, illicit fentanyl is the worst in terms of potency, and it now accounts for most of the opioid-related deaths. It would surprise most people to know that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been around since the 1960s. And it remains highly effective for helping health professionals treat people in severe pain from cancer, back surgeries and other surgeries and chronic pain.
But, unfortunately, the “high” from fentanyl is craved by drug users who seek out pure fentanyl and fentanyl-laced narcotics. Furthermore, it has become increasingly apparent that the illicit supply of psychoactive substances have become contaminated with a variety of toxic compounds including up to 17 varieties of fentanyl, that not only increase users’ risk of death but also have major health implications.
Earlier in my career, I was a detective with the New Milford New Jersey, Police Department and one of my jobs was to look at confiscated drugs in the evidence room. I could easily tell a simple marijuana cigarette or “joint” from one laced with PCP or Angel Dust from smell and appearance. Not so with fentanyl. In fact, the opposite is true. Using a pill press, drug dealers create illicit fentanyl pills — so-called “fentapills” — to look exactly like legitimately manufactured pills. Put an illicit pill next to a Vicodin, Xanax, Percocet, Adderall or OxyContin and they will look identical to users — the perfect disguise.
Compounding the problem is the disturbing finding that even substance users are not aware of the contaminants in the drugs they use and a study by the research group Morning Consult that about a third of high schoolers don’t know what fentanyl is.
What is the solution?
The solution is complex. requiring evidence-based interventions designed to reach a range of audiences including those who are already engaged in substance use but also, and perhaps most important, our children. These prevention interventions are designed to address substance use, but also have been found to increase academic performance while reducing crime and violence including bullying.
As funds from the national opioid settlement flow toward substance use prevention, we must all ask ourselves what programs are proven effective as judged by federal standards and that are cost effective, meaning that the benefits from participation in these programs outweigh the costs associated with the delivery of the programs.
As just one example “Too Good for Drugs,” the curricula my organization uses for K-12 education, was cited in President Joe Biden’s 2022 National Drug Control Strategy as having a 94% chance of the benefits outweighing the costs. Programs such as these are evidence-based and focus on building young people’s social competencies, giving kids the skills they need to make the right choices not only regarding the use of psychoactive substances but also other risky behaviors.
With the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy in motion and new money from the settlements, we have the chance for a different perfect storm — one that combines strategy, education and commitment to turn this whole awful situation around. The time is right, and the time is now. Let’s do everything we can as a society to warn against, educate against and stop illicit fentanyl, this killer in disguise, and any other harmful substance that arises in our communities and, at the same time, enhance our children’s lives.
For more information on L.E.A.D., please visit www.leadrugs.org