Bags of fentanyl pills
Bags of fentanyl pills. Courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration

An alarming trend has public health officials and parents alike concerned as a nationwide increase in teen fentanyl overdoses paints a troubling picture.

In a new warning issued by the Rocky Mountain Poison Center, the agency encouraged parents to remain alert after several teens in the area overdosed while trying to vaporize liquid fentanyl.

Fentanyl—a synthetic opioid used medicinally for pain management—is one of the strongest opiates available, often with a potency “80-100 times stronger than morphine.”

As a substance, fentanyl is typically powdered or pressed into pills. Fentanyl is quickly becoming an additive of choice for illicit drugs like counterfeit pharmaceutical pills and narcotics like meth and cocaine.

Law enforcement officials are alarmed, as record-breaking amounts of the substance are being trafficked into the county, both as a pure powder and mixed into other illicit substances.

In fact, according to the San Diego branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), fentanyl seizures by law enforcement increased by over 2,000 lbs. over the course of just one year. Consequently, more overdose numbers are also being reported, with San Diego seeing hundreds of fentanyl overdoses annually—with numbers only rising.

Authorities are warning that fentanyl is a danger in any form, as many drugs that arrive in the country are laced with the opioid after distribution to localized drug dealers. This means that, regardless of where someone is getting narcotics, or what kind they are getting, the risk of fentanyl is ever-present as counterfeit pills are often indistinguishable from one another to the untrained eye.

In San Diego County, that concern has hit a fever pitch over the last few years, as the burden of a national opioid crisis has manifested devastating impacts locally.

In November 2021, an El Cajon resident was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for the sale of fake Oxycodone pills. The pills — laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl to mask their counterfeited nature — had caused the death of a 19-year-old two years earlier. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Accidental overdoses on fentanyl among teens have been on a steady rise over the past two years. Black teens, in particular, are seeing up to five times more overdoses than in previous years, even with an overall decrease in teen drug use during the pandemic.

This may be an indication of how serious fentanyl is to communities — its danger is present, even despite less “experimentation” by young people overall. This is not restricted to teens with ongoing substance use struggles — even a single instance of experimentation with narcotics can expose teens to fatal doses of fentanyl.

Public health advocates in San Diego County are urging parents to discuss the risks of experimentation with pharmaceuticals, and the potential for fentanyl overdose.

For parents, the message to teens needs to be clear: the normal teenage experience does not include using prescription drugs to self-medicate — especially with the risk of fentanyl overdose being so widespread. Instead, teens need to be given hope that there are meaningful ways to cope with the enormous stress they are under, without resorting to methods that can prove fatal.

 The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has also created One Pill Can Kill, a program designed to educate the public about the potentially fatal consequences of gambling with narcotics. The program includes resources for parents, including practical advice for communicating with teens about responsible, safe decision-making.