Lawmakers want Long Islanders to share the message that fentanyl is deadly and are pushing for longer treatment options. NewsdayTV's Cecilia Dowd reports.  Credit: Newsday Staff

Joanne Pacheco thought her 28-year-old son was finally in the clear after a decade of struggling with drug abuse.

He came home on New Year’s Day from a rehab facility in Hampton Bays and seemed ready to stay clean. But by April 4, he was dead — overdosing on heroin that unknown to him was laced with the far more deadly opioid fentanyl.

“He had a beautiful vision, and he was taken from me too soon,” Pacheco told reporters gathered in Hauppauge, sobbing. “I love you Daniel, I love you so much … I’m still waiting for you.”

Joanne Pacheco of Bellport with a picture of her son, Spencer Daniel Burton,...

Joanne Pacheco of Bellport with a picture of her son, Spencer Daniel Burton, who died of a fentanyl overdose last month, at a news conference in Hauppauge for National Fentanyl Awareness Day on Tuesday. Credit: James Carbone

Public officials and families of overdose victims on Tuesday marked National Fentanyl Awareness Day with a sobering message: many drugs on the street today are laced with the deadly substance.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Public officials and families of overdose victims on Tuesday marked National Fentanyl Awareness Day, saying many drugs on the street are laced with the deadly substance.
  • The latest AMA data shows the number of overdoses involving fentanyl has been growing since the opioid epidemic began nearly 25 years ago.
  • In a report released Monday, the AMA said that in 2021, almost 70,000 adults in the U.S. fatally overdosed on fentanyl.

Gathering outside a Suffolk County government building, they laid 175 stones painted purple on the sidewalk — representing the 175 people a day who die from overdosing on fentanyl in the United States. Some of the stones had the names and photos of fentanyl victims from Long Island.

“If there is one single message we want parents, educators, and others to hear today, it’s this: fentanyl kills,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, who organized the media event.

She said unless drugs such as Xanax and Adderall are “prescribed by a licensed medical professional and dispensed by a legitimate pharmacy, you simply cannot know it’s safe.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, and 100 times more potent than morphine.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has described fentanyl as the “single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered.” And a new report from the American Medical Association shows that fentanyl overdoses spiked significantly in 2021.

Fentanyl is especially dangerous, some speakers at the event noted, because it is tasteless and odorless. Some warned that as students approach final exams this time of the year, they need to be wary of taking nonprescription “study drugs.”

“Overdose and fentanyl poisoning are claiming more young lives than ever,” said Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Young people “think they know what they are buying, but one mistake can kill them,” he said. He noted that six out of 10 fake prescription pills seized by the DEA contain deadly doses of fentanyl.

The pain of fentanyl overdosing was on full display at the event, where some families of victims held photographs of their deceased loved ones.

Pacheco, 47, of Bellport, said she is still in shock over the death of her son, Spencer Daniel Burton. She said she heard a loud thump as the 6-foot-6, 300-pound man fell to the floor of their house. She used Narcan on him twice, but it was not enough to save him, she said.

It was especially tragic, she said, since her son had shown a willingness to get off drugs.

“He always was willing to go and get help,” she said. “He always wanted to get clean.”

The latest AMA data shows the number of overdoses involving fentanyl has been growing since the opioid epidemic began nearly 25 years ago. In a report released Monday, it said that in 2021, almost 70,000 adults in the U.S. fatally overdosed on fentanyl.

The report said fentanyl use — and deaths — is rising among children and especially adolescents as well as adults. It found that in 1999, approximately 5% of the 175 pediatric deaths from opioids were from fentanyl. By 2021, it was up to 94%, or 1557 out of 1657 opioid pediatric deaths.

“The number of people being poisoned by fentanyl is staggering, and so is the heartbreak left behind,” said Carole Trottere, who herself lost a son, Alex, to an overdose. “We are losing a generation of young people to fentanyl poisoning.”

Chassman and others said the public needs to remember that drug overdose victims are people who could have lived rich lives.

“The rocks before you represent our children, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, our artists, our teachers, our future elected officials,” he said.

Correction: Carole Trottere is retired from government communications and an anti-fentanyl activist. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect profession.

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