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Fentanyl: Why the potent drug poses a big threat to students, colleges

The rates of overdoses in the United States continue to rise exponentially among young adults.

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The recent news of six West Point cadets in South Florida overdosing on cocaine during Spring Break and surviving was a scary reminder of the dangers of young adults using illegal drugs. But it was the footnote to the incident that was even more alarming: officials say it was laced with fentanyl.

In 2021 alone, the synthetic opioid was responsible for at least 64,000 deaths in the United States and the numbers are doubling every year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Said to be 100 times more potent than morphine, it is a substance that is finding its way into a variety of drugs, especially heroin, and others like Ecstasy and knockoff prescription pills. It is also being taken directly and is highly addictive.

College-age students are in the crosshairs of this epidemic, whether they know it or not. In Washington state, the leading cause of opioid-related overdose deaths among those under 30 is not prescription pills or heroin. It’s fentanyl by a longshot, about four times higher than the others. The state has seen a 24% surge in the direct use of fentanyl in the past two years.

“The CDC data is pretty clear that it’s quite catastrophic,” says Dr. Lewis Nelson, Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and University Hospital. “There are probably going to be 80,000 to 100,000 people dying of fentanyl this year.”

How many of those will occur among higher education students on campuses? In January, a sophomore at Stanford University died after accidentally ingesting fentanyl. Authorities noted a couple of other deaths nearby with the same marker— fake pills marked as Percocet, a trend across the country that also has seen dealers distributing counterfeit Oxycodone. There are heart-wrenching stories like the one of University of Colorado senior Madeline Globe, who died after buying a $5 pill she thought was Xanax but was actually fentanyl. Even trace amounts of fentanyl are so powerful that the slightest miscalculation can result in death.

“One of the problems when you buy illicit drugs is that there’s no quality control,” Nelson says. “You go to the pharmacy and you get a Percocet tablet, you know it’s got oxycodone and acetaminophen. You go on the street and buy heroin, it could have everything from chopped up Life Savers to heroin or fentanyl. That’s true for cocaine as well. It’s being added because it’s cheap, but it’s very hard to properly dose. There’s not a single [kind of] fentanyl, there’s dozens of them, and each is a little bit different.”

Nelson said heightened attention still should be paid to prescription opioids and other drugs like cocaine, which remain popular among college-age students and also can result in severe outcomes if abused. He said fentanyl isn’t any more dangerous when prescribed properly—it is used on cancer patients, for example—but that when it isn’t done right, the results are deadly.

The overdose problem, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is hitting teens and Black men the hardest. They were among the lowest racial group to sustain deaths from overdose just seven years ago, but now they are far and away the top group. Public health leaders say ensuring that campuses provide strong mental health resources is one step in trying to solve the problem.

As the epidemic escalates and more deaths arise, what can colleges do to help stop them? “Education is absolutely critical, but not sufficient,” Nelson says. “One thing is destigmatizing it and making sure people know that if somebody has overdosed, you recognize the signs—shallow breathing, small pupils, [blue tinge to skin]. You can do CPR, you can do mouth to mouth (since it often attacks breathing airways) and call EMS.”

That is important because there have been rumors that fentanyl can spread during resuscitation or topically, but that isn’t the case. The best remedy is having Naloxone (Narcan) on hand. Colleges can reach out to community health partners or the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to discuss options for students.

Another is ensuring that students get their hands on fentanyl test strips. It takes a bold college to admit the societal problem might be happening on their campuses too, but it can save lives. Many users who go clubbing already know to test their drugs before they use them. Some communities go a step further by offering test facilities, so even making students aware that they exist can be helpful. The bottom line is that whatever higher education can do to help solve the issue—even bringing health leaders onto campuses for health panels—should be done.

As Michael Barnett, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently told the publication Medical Express, “The risk with fentanyl isn’t just addiction or other side effects—it’s simply death.”

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