The COVID pandemic continues to exact an enormous physical, economic, and emotional toll on people across America. The emergence of yet another variant before the holidays has led to a lot of uncertainty. It has also exacerbated another crisis — the opioid crisis.
For many the holiday season and New Year’s is a time for celebration, but for some it can be period of stress and anxiety. The COVID pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair” from suicide, overdoses and alcoholism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated over 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses 12-month period ending in November, a 30 percent increase from the year before, and the highest number on record. The majority of those preventable deaths involved a synthetic opioid, especially fentanyl — disproportionately impacting our youth.
Fentanyl is by far the number one drug threat in the United States. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin, and even a tiny dose — less than a grain of salt — can be fatal. It is also everywhere. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, over a quarter of all counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl contain a lethal dose. Routinely encountered in every corner of America, fentanyl has infiltrated big cities and small towns, and while it is sometimes abused on its own, it is more often mixed with other substances, such as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. In rare cases, it has even been found in marijuana.
But perhaps the most concerning development has been fentanyl pressed into pill form. These counterfeit pills resemble prescription opioids that appeal to a user base that associates pills with medicine. In fact, these pills are better thought of as a death wish. They are manufactured in makeshift labs, dirty garages and musty basements, and they contain wildly different doses of fentanyl and other substances. The truth is, nobody knows what’s in them, including the dealers, which leads to predictably tragic results. As a result, unfortunately, it is becoming more and more common to hear heartbreaking stories from parents of promising young students in high school or college that took a single counterfeit pill, overdosed, and died. It is quite literally a game of Russian roulette.
In September, the DEA issued a Public Safety Alert — the first in six years — to help raise public awareness of the nationwide surge in counterfeit pills. The Department of Justice and DEA subsequently announced the seizure of over 1.8 million of these pills in just two months.The fentanyl-laced fake pills seized by DEA could potentially kill more than 700,000 Americans. And that’s only a fraction of the number flooding our communities. DEA also launched its “One Pill Can Kill” campaign, which urges people to only take pills prescribed by a doctor and obtained from state-licensed pharmacies in the United States, where authorities can assure the quality of drug manufacturing, packaging and distribution.
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Law enforcement has an important role to play in educating the public about the risks of counterfeit pills, but it cannot do it alone. We need parents, teachers, coaches, and religious figures to amplify this message, and ensure young Americans know what is at stake when they take unprescribed pills. Years ago, taking a single pill may not have resulted in addiction or death, but sadly, that is now a very real possibility.
The COVID pandemic has resulted in increased stress, anxiety and social isolation. The holidays often compound those feelings and can lead to risky behavior, including drug use. And like COVID, opioids do not discriminate based on age, race, gender or religion — they are equal opportunity killers. Now more than ever, we must remain vigilant about the opioid threat and do everything we can to keep young people safe and healthy. This holiday season have an honest conversation with your family about the dangers of drugs. It may just save their life.
DEA and its partners have produced many valuable resources available to help talk to kids about drug use. For more information, please go to https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov orhttps://www.justthinktwice.gov.
Jim Crotty served 12 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), most recently as the Deputy Chief of Staff. He is currently an Associate Vice President at The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm in Washington. From 2018 to 2020, Uttam Dhillon served as the Acting Administrator of the DEA. He is a founder and principal at DC Consulting, a management consulting firm focused on drug policy, prevention of illicit drug use, and healthy communities.