Fentanyl following a major seizure of drugs and drug paraphernalia. 

Fentanyl following a major seizure of drugs and drug paraphernalia.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

When seven people living in the Chicago area died in 1982 after consuming tampered Tylenol laced with cyanide, nobody said they had “overdosed.” They were poisoned.

So were many of the 70,000 Americans who, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, died in the 12-month period ending November 2021 after consuming street drugs laced with illicit fentanyl.

Most fentanyl victims unknowingly consumed a manufactured opioid 50 times more potent than heroin after a few grains were added to a batch of cocaine, ecstasy or heroin or pressed into fake Adderall, Xanax or Percocet pills obtained from the internet, a friend, or at a party.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 15,000 pounds of fentanyl — four times the amount confiscated in 2017, enough to kill every American.

Drug-related deaths in the U.S. are growing fastest among people under 19, jumping 26% between 2020 and 2021; fentanyl has edged out heroin to drive most of those casualties. Fentanyl fatalities among high schoolers soared 169% in 2020.

During COVID-19, drug deaths jumped on Long Island, and our region made national news last summer when a deadly batch of fentanyl-laced cocaine killed six people on the North Fork and Shelter Island.

As we mark the first National Fentanyl Awareness Day Tuesday, virtually every street drug is contaminated with a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

While “overdose” and “poisoning” are used interchangeably by federal health agencies, medical examiners, and law enforcement to describe drug-related deaths, they aren’t the same thing. An overdose occurs when you use too much of a known substance; poisoning generally denotes accidental exposure to a dangerous ingredient. The words matter, especially to those who have lost a loved one, but also because they help shape our response.

When we put aside the rhetoric, judgment and blame associated with drug use and address these deaths as accidental poisonings, the public health imperative becomes clear: Stop the poison at its source, educate and equip users with the tools to detect and avoid the contaminant, distribute an antidote as widely as possible, and diminish demand for potentially contaminated products.

Law enforcement needs to better curb the flow of fentanyl from Chinese companies to Mexican cartels to domestic traffickers who use social media to peddle poison to our kids.

Only about a third of high schoolers know what fentanyl is, polling firm Morning Consult found, and 73% do not know about fentanyl in counterfeit pills. We need to do a better job educating and counseling our kids, especially as they try to self-medicate the depression and anxiety fueled by COVID.

It’s great that municipalities and nonprofits have stepped up the distribution of fentanyl test strips so drug users can check for contamination in a matter of minutes. But test strips don’t work well with pills and sometimes miss fentanyl analogues.

Countless lives have been saved through naloxone education and distribution programs, but the recent upswing in fatalities demands we make the opioid overdose reversal agent even more widely available.

Finally, once we've kept our kids alive long enough to engage them in a conversation about addiction treatment, let's make sure they have access to the full range of substance use disorder and mental health treatment options, and let's support their long-term recovery and enlist their help in saving another generation.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jeffrey L. Reynolds, chief executive of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which provides addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support services across Long Island.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jeffrey L. Reynolds, chief executive of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which provides addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support services across Long Island.