Experts are saying that drug-related deaths among US high school and college-aged youth are at an all-time high due to fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills being sold on social media.
National statistics show a huge surge in drug-related deaths during the pandemic, with fatalities leaping to more than 93,000 in 2020, a 32% rise from 2019. However, no group has seen a faster rise than youth under 24, according to a Guardian analysis of 2020 federal data.
In this age group, accidental drug deaths increased by 50% in a single year – taking 7,337 young lives in 2020. A large portion of this increase is due to the vast quantities of fentanyl streaming into the US, experts say.
In California, where fentanyl deaths were rare just five years ago, a young person under 24 is now dying every 12 hours, per a Guardian analysis of state data through June 2021.
According to data from the California department of public health’s drug overdose dashboard, that’s a 1,000% increase over 2018.
Fentanyl, a cheap, synthetic opioid up to 100 times more potent than heroin and getting mixed with traditional street drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. In fact, federal authorities say fentanyl is going into pills that look just like pharmaceuticals.
That being said, the potency of counterfeit pills can vary dramatically.
In the first three quarters of 2021, federal agents seized nearly 10m counterfeit pills, which is more than the previous two years combined. And tests conducted on the pills showed that two out of five of the counterfeits contained enough fentanyl to kill, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
However, according to experts, say drug dealing has shifted from dark alleys and street corners to social media. This leads young people to buy what they believe is Xanax, Percocet or Oxycodone tablets from home.
“These are not overdoses; these are poisonings,” said Shabbir Safdar, director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a non-profit fighting pharmaceutical counterfeits. “Nobody dies from taking a Xanax; nobody dies from taking a single Percocet. These are fake pills.”
The author Sam Quinones, who follows the rise of fentanyl in his book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, believes because of the high numbers of drugs pouring into the US, “the days of recreational drug use are over”.
“Every drug you try now is a game of Russian roulette.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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