Nationwide drug crises creates awareness in overdoses, calls for action

Alexandra Warner

In North Dallas a father and son allegedly operated a section of the powerful Sinaloa cartel from Plano, Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News. On Feb. 15, 22-year-old Jason Xavier Villanueva was arrested for supplying adolescents and young drug dealers with fentanyl-laced pills, leading to three teenager deaths in Carrollton, Texas. These pills have also been linked to 10 overdoses of adolescents ranging from 13 to 17.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Currently, the U.S. is experiencing a drug overdose epidemic, specifically fentanyl, and it is advancing quickly toward Dallas.

“The usage levels of street drugs like heroin or methamphetamine in the United States has never been lower, and yet, the reason the fentanyl crisis is so bad is not that there’s a ton more drug use,” Will Straughan, founder and CEO of Soundcheck Prevention, said. “The deaths have increased because of the potency of fentanyl and the way young teenagers are about to access it.”

Accessing drugs has become easier for students and teenagers; however, that does lead to consequences like overdoses. Senior Rohan Schlehuber, who is doing a project on fentanyl in his forensics chemistry class, understands how lethal fentanyl can be and how alarming these incidents are so close to home.

“I feel that teen deaths regarding fentanyl are bad in the Dallas [area] and there needs to be more awareness around it to prevent future cases from happening,” Schlehuber said. “I’ve learned a lot from researching on my forensics project, so I wish there was more information for everyone.”

In 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced the seizure of over 50.6 million fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills and more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder — double the amount caught in 2021. Most of the fentanyl transported in the U.S. is trafficked by the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation Cartels based out of Mexico.

“​​So its initial reason that it’s been produced is for pain medicine, and in that arena, it works very well,” Dr. Alexandra Dresel Lovitt, who practices with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, said. “It’s usually used in the operating room or in the postoperative setting and is very effective at controlling pain after [and] during surgery.”

In 2021, the DEA issued a Public Safety Alert on the widespread fentanyl trafficking in the form of fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills. These pills are made to look identical to real prescription medications — including OxyContin®, Percocet® and Xanax®. The only safe medications are ones prescribed by a trusted medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.

We want to make as many tools available to prevent death and possible overdoses.

Will Straughan

“There are three types of medications: opioid pain relievers, ADHD medications like Adderall or anti-anxiety medications like Xanax,” Straughan said. “What drug dealers are doing now is stamping pills that look exactly like that, but it’s laced with fentanyl.”

Adolescents are obtaining fentanyl; however, it may not all be through the same way. Some may be using drug dealers to get medication like Adderall, but the drug contains fentanyl; some may be stressed and use drugs to cope or alcohol compromises their decisions and a teenager tries a drug at a party. According to the DEA, 60 percent of fake prescription pills contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.

“It sounds like teenagers and young adults are getting [drugs] off of social media primarily like Snapchat and other websites where these drug dealers are hiding,” Straughan said. “Students who go to a high-achieving school put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed and with that comes stress. Not to make the assumption necessarily, but that could lead to bad decisions and unhealthy relief outlets.”

The most common pathway for addiction to fentanyl is when it was “legitimately prescribed” to patients post surgery after experiencing a bad injury. However, the potency of the drug can make patients become easily addicted to it.

“After a surgery and after it has been prescribed, the patient realizes how good they feel when they take it and becomes quickly dependent on it,” Lovitt said. “It’s similar to heroin and morphine and so the same family of drugs, and those drugs all have a very high rate of both physical dependency and emotional dependency.”

Doctors and those who work in hospitals are also becoming addicted to fentanyl because of drug access in the operating room. Around four years ago, there was a surge in anesthesiologist and nurse deaths due to fentanyl usage.

“It’s been really cracked down on because there were so many for a while where [doctors] would come in the morning and find a dead anesthesiologist or a dead nurse in the operating room,” Lovitt said. “And so now, every case that we do has a drug box where everything is accounted for. And a nurse has to witness the anesthesiologist waste anything that they didn’t give to the patient, and then they have to document that it got disposed of into a trash can.”

There are solutions to prevent fentanyl overdoses. One way is through a prescription medicine called NARCAN. It’s used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose emergency with signs of breathing problems and severe sleepiness or not being able to respond.

“Having NARCAN or Naloxone [in schools] and training on campus in case of an emergency are worth exploring and implementing,” Straughan said. “[NARCAN is an] opiate agonist that just reverses the effects [of fentanyl]. It can be sprayed into somebody’s nose who’s overdosed or an injection on the thigh.”

On a larger scale, the Texas government has begun to write bills and converse about legislation that should be passed, such as universal test strips, to resolve this issue and help limit the number of deaths or accidental overdoses.

“The Texas government [both] Republicans and Democrats used to be against providing test strips for people to be able to test whether something was laced with fentanyl,” Straughan said. “Now in the Texas Legislature, both Democrats and Republicans have put forth a bunch of bills that would make it legal for test strips to be provided for people.”

From the government to organizations like Soundcheck, people are becoming more involved in preventing and educating people on addiction and overdose.

“We want to make as many tools available to prevent death and possible overdoses,” Straughan said. “It is worth exploring and pushing for because we want to reduce the harm that these drugs and fentanyl can cause.”

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