Recently, a number of people close to the Partnership have reached out because they have lost children to counterfeit pills or pain relief pills laced with fentanyl. While their stories didn’t make the newspapers like the fentanyl-related deaths of Michael K. Williams of The Wire and singer Tom Petty, it’s no less of a tragedy as the heartache reverberated among family and friends.

The danger of “laced” drugs isn’t new. Many of the substances sold on the street are laced with “cutting agents” (like laundry detergent, talcum powder or rat poison), more potent substances or disguised as another drug altogether. For example, marijuana can be laced with embalming fluid, or the hallucinogen PCP. But one of the most dangerous is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl is showing up in cocaine, heroin, pain pills like Percocet, Oxycodone or Norco pills, and in prescription anxiety medications like Xanax.

Recently the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released its first public health alert in six years. They are warning about fentanyl in the U.S. drug supply and in the first nine months of 2021, have seized 9.5 million counterfeit pills. Their lab analysis shows that two out of every five pills contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

According to a recent CDC report deaths related to fentanyl increased 30% between March 2020 and March 2021 alone. Synthetic drugs are often deadlier not only because of how strong they are, but also because of the ever-changing ways in which they are blended into other substances. This makes it difficult for people to know not only what they are taking, but also the strength of the drug. Someone could think they are taking pain meds like Norco, or other painkiller pills, but in reality they are consuming something much more powerful.

Many families wonder why anyone would lace a product with a substance like fentanyl, given it’s so powerful and can easily cause an overdose. After all, who would knowingly promote a product that has the potential to kill their buyers? The answer lies in economics. It’s cheaper to produce, and when combined with other sought-after substances, can generate huge profits, despite the risk of overdose and loss of life.

While measures are being taken to safeguard the country, there are actions you as a parent or caregiver can take to protect and reduce the risks loved ones may face:

  1. Talk about the risks of misusing prescription medications in addition to reminding your son or daughter that even if they think they know what a medication is, it can be counterfeit. Young people may be tempted to try painkiller tablets, pills like Xanax, or powders (e.g. cocaine) at parties — which is risky on its own, but especially so with the increased concerns about fentanyl.
  2. Two-thirds of teens and young adults who report non-medical use of prescription medicine are getting it from friends, family and acquaintances. It’s important to secure prescribed medications, take them as directed by your healthcare provider and dispose of unused pain pills rather than keeping them for a “rainy day.”
  3. If you know or suspect your child might be exposed to substances laced with fentanyl, consider suggesting measures that can reduce the risks, including:
    1. Using fentanyl test strips to test products for the presence of fentanyl.
    2. Having emergency naloxone (Narcan) available and knowing how to use it.
    3. Using substances more slowly or in smaller amounts, and/or spacing out the doses, given the potency of fentanyl.
    4. Having someone check in on your loved one if they consume substances alone, or ensure someone in a group is alert and able to use emergency naloxone if needed.

If you need guidance on how to protect your loved one, reduce the risks or encourage treatment for substance use, text a question or message to 55753 to connect one-on-one with a Helpline Specialist.