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'We Have To Teach Them To Stay Safe' — High Schooler Dies From Fentanyl Overdose Amid Rise in Drug Deaths

A box contains doses of Naloxone, which countermands overdoses.
Some of the contents of an overdose rescue kit.
(Spencer Platt
Getty Images)
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Fentanyl is everywhere.

That’s according to experts and researchers like Joseph Friedman at UCLA, who said the dangerous, highly addictive drug is increasingly cropping up in counterfeit pills.

“Regardless of what you’re buying, if you’re buying it in the illicit market, there’s a very high chance that it might be contaminated with fentanyl,” Friedman said.

Fentanyl-laced pills killed a student at Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood and sickened three other teens on Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

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The department said that the teens all bought the pills at nearby Lexington Park.

Friedman is the lead author of a report from April that showed that the rate of drug overdose deaths in teens nationwide nearly doubled in 2020 and rose another 20% in the first half of 2021.

“Unfortunately, here in California, we are kind of the epicenter of this,” he said.

The majority of those deaths were due to illicit fentanyl. “In a lot of cases, the teens who are overdosing on fentanyls are really just experimenting,” Friedman said.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that can take a liquid or powder form. It’s often mixed in with other drugs in pills and sold illegally.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. 

Fentanyl-laced pills are increasingly contributing to fatal drug overdoses in teens, according to UCLA’s Friedman.

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“They look like commonly used prescription drugs like oxycodone, or Xanax,” he said.

“You know how many kids I have coming on my TikTok telling me that they’re addicted to the blues?”
— Pej Alaghamandan, a local drug interventionist

Rapper Mac Miller died in his Studio City home in 2018 after overdosing on fentanyl-laced pills. The drug dealer who supplied him the pills was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison last year. 

Pills are seductive to teens, who prefer taking them over powder. “I think because they'd been perceived as you know, it came from a doctor, I think there's a sense that it might be safer,” Friedman said.

“But unfortunately, in this moment, that's really not true anymore.”

Mac Miller: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
(Mac Miller died in L.A. from an accidental overdose with fentanyl-based pills in 2018. )

Friedman said teens who identify as Latino or Indigenous were disproportionately affected by overdoses, likely due to a lack of access to mental health treatment and other services.

L.A. drug interventionist Pej Alaghamandan uses TikTok and YouTube to spread awareness of how dangerous and addictive fentanyl pills — also known as “the blues” — can be.

“You know how many kids I have coming on my TikTok telling me that they’re addicted to the blues?” he said. “You never expect kids already experimenting with synthetic opioids.”

Alaghamandan said that he has kids as young as 12 telling him on TikTok that they’re using fentanyl.

“Right now, it’s pretty much all that’s out there,” he said, adding that drugs like pure heroin are harder to find.

“It’s very powerful. It’s very potent. It’s captivating.”

How to Protect Yourself (Or Your Teen)

A woman and a girl embrace as they look at signs made by family and friends of people who died after being poisoned by pills containing fentanyl. The signs are laid out side by side on a grass field.
Edith Gonzalez and Kimberly Fuentes embrace as they look at signs made by family and friends of people who died after being poisoned by pills containing fentanyl, including their friend Adrian De Jesus, on June 4, 2021 in Santa Monica.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Friedman and Alaghamandan said that kids are going to keep experimenting with drugs. Preaching abstinence isn’t going to get far with a lot of kids, so drug education becomes vital.

Here are some tips:

  • Alaghamandan suggests talking to a drug interventionist about how to open up to your parents or loved ones about using. “Listen. I’ve done something that I don’t really want to do. And I’m stuck. And I don’t know how to get out of it.”
  • Friedman said distributing Narcan widely to teens and teaching them how to use it could help stop deaths. He recommended giving it out to teens to store in their car glove box. 
  • Learn the signs of an opioid overdose. “Someone during an overdose, their lips will turn blue, their breathing will slow down, they won’t be able to talk to you,” Friedman said.
  • Access drug education curriculum for teens through the Drug Policy Alliance.

“This is a truly unprecedented health emergency in our country,” Friedman said. “And so we need to be able to equip teens to be on the front lines of solving the crisis.”

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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