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Fentanyl overdose hits record-breaking level for young adults, data shows

Source: KATU2 ABC

by Evan Schreiber, KATU Staff | Thursday, December 23rd 2021

Milwaukie Police Department Detective Tony Cereghino points to fake prescription pain pills laced with dangerous and highly-potent fentanyl that were recently seized in an arrest. (KATU)

New death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows overdose issues continue to climb into record-breaking territory and fentanyl is to blame in most cases.

The number one killer of Americans 18 to 45 is now fentanyl overdoses, with nearly 79,000 people in the age range dying to them between 2020 and 2021, according to newly released data. An analysis of CDC information from "Families Against Fentanyl," an opioid awareness organization, showed that the total number of deaths in 2020 from fentanyl poisoning nearly doubled the number of people in that age range killed by car crashes and suicide.

"In the west, a vast majority of the overdoses were related to counterfeit pills," Dr. John McIlveen, the Oregon Health Authority's state opioid treatment authority, told KATU. "The trends aren't good. They're continuing to climb."

The synthetic illicit opioid, fentanyl, is often mixed into counterfeit prescription pills and sold illegally.

"Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a lethal dose of fentanyl is about two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt.

Comparison of a U.S. penny to a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. (Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

McIlveen said fentanyl's presence is very present and no longer at a whispering level.

"We're moving beyond the point where we're talking about a contaminated drug supply. We're actually talking about a drug supply that is predominantly fentanyl."

He says that more recently in Oregon, in just the first four months of 2021, opioid overdose deaths were already about 80% of the total deaths we saw the entire year of 2019.

Nationally, the overdose crisis hit a record high.

The CDC estimated more than 100,000 people were killed from April 2020 to April 2021 -- the most ever recorded over a 12-month period. Experts believe the top drivers are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support.

"People think this is not something that could happen to them. We're here to say it can happen to anyone with the introduction of fake pills that are filled with deadly, illicit fentanyl," Jon Epstein told KATU.

Jon and his wife Jennifer fondly shared memories of their son, Cal. They tell his life story in their Northwest Portland community and beyond while facing questions about his tragic death.

Jennifer and Jon Epstein talked to KATU about the death of their son, Cal, from accidental fentanyl poisoning. The family has joined together with others who have gone through similar tragedies to share a warning about the deadly danger. (KATU)

There were no signs of an addiction for Cal. Jennifer and Jon say the signs weren't so clear with Cal and that not every overdose death, of the 100,000 killed in the past year in the United States, is one and the same.

But in December 2020, while home for the holiday break after his first semester at the University of Hawaii, Jon said Cal may have been stressed.

It led to a mistake they never could have expected.

"He sought out an [OxyContin] and he got it on Snapchat. But it turned out to be filled with fentanyl. And he never stood a chance," Jon said.

It was a fake pill. Cal Epstein was unknowingly poisoned.

"Now, especially, those pills are fake and filled with inconsistent amounts of illicit and deadly fentanyl," Jon said.

At 18 years old, Cal is on the younger end of this new record-breaking statistic.

Fentanyl deaths in America across all age groups doubled from 32,754 fatalities to 64,178 fatalities in just two years between April 2019 and April 2021, according to the data, Families Against Fentanyl says.

"There's so much of it out there and it's coming packaged in this deceptive way. I see it as kids are being swept up in the tide of illicit fentanyl," Jon explained.

Jennifer thinks younger people are being targeted by dealers who have little care for human life.

"The drug environment is not the same drug environment from 10 years ago or 5 years ago. It is a different drug environment. It's just a much stronger drug that is getting out there," she said.

The Epsteins believe there's a perception about pills among young people that is wildly inaccurate, and data shows younger people are unaware of the severity of fentanyl. One study shows they don't rate it nearly as dangerous as other, less immediately harmful substances.

Research done in October by Snap Inc., the company that developed the social media platform Snapchat, found that when asked to rate how dangerous various drugs are, young Americans were most likely to say heroin (61%) and cocaine (50%) are extremely dangerous, while the share who say the same about fentanyl (37%) trails considerably.

"A pill just simply seems a lot more safe than needle," McIlveen said, offering his perspective. "I think individuals who are going to think about using pills that they are buying -- off Snapchat or wherever -- are going to have to really, honestly consider the fact that the vast majority of these are fentanyl."

As the Epsteins remember their son, they note Cal's case was not part of an addictive problem. They say he was not struggling with a substance use disorder.

They want to know if the state is treating these cases, their son's case, differently than those needing treatment for addiction.

"To combat that, our prevention folks at OHA are beginning to work a little more specifically in that space of fentanyl and catching up as this epidemic has kind of swept over us," McIlveen said.

Jennifer is now working for an organization known as Song For Charlie. The nonprofit group is focused on so-called "fentapills," also known as a fake prescription pill made of fentanyl, and they're focusing their attention on younger people.

"Fentanyl has changed the game. Fake ‘fentapills’ are everywhere. You can’t trust any pill you get online, on social media or from a friend. Period," the organization writes on its website.

But McIlveen tells KATU it's not necessarily a message the OHA can stand behind, as he wants a little more nuance in the conversation about the dangers of fentanyl.

The Oregon Health Authority's Dr. John McIlveen (left), the state's opioid treatment authority, tells KATU's Evan Schreiber that data shows in the west, a vast majority of the deadly overdoses were related to counterfeit pills. (KATU)

"Maybe the more nuanced [message] might be more, 'We are concerned about you and we want to give you the information you need to make your own decisions and we trust you to do that. And we have resources that can help,'" McIlveen said. "I think that the messaging has to fall somewhere in the middle, in that it has to be educational, it has to be fact-based, and it also has to reduce stigma."

Regardless of how you say it, the Epstein family is continuing to warn other families to avoid a fatal mistake.

"People are going to make their own decisions, especially these growing, young adults. They're going to make their own decisions," Jon said. "But when they have the information, I think they make the right ones."

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