The First & Last Dose

Dancing lights, pounding music, a cacophony of clinking glasses, whooping and ceaseless laughter. Finally, at the finish line after four years of grueling high school and morning classes, it is time to celebrate the new chapter of your life with a graduation party.

Indulging in some of your friend’s “completely safe” drugs gives you a taste of freedom; little did you know that they were laced with fentanyl. You just landed a one-way ticket to leaving the once-joyful party in a black body bag, surrounded by wailing sirens and ambulances instead.

Over the past three years, the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths has skyrocketed to a record high in San Diego, more than doubling every year. In 2019, 152 overdose deaths caused by fentanyl were recorded, 462 in 2020 and just last year, the number surpassed 800 cases. Disturbingly, an unmistakable portion of these deaths include middle schoolers and high schoolers.

“Of those 800 people that died in San Diego County in 2021 alone, 12 people were between the ages of 14 and 17,” County District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

Although big fentanyl busts are made throughout the country, San Diego’s close proximity to the Mexican border makes it a target for dealers to easily traffic fentanyl into the country, according Joe Olesky the SDUHSD student support specialist and head of the district’s drug intervention program, READI.

“The fentanyl surge in San Diego County is at an emergency crisis level,” Stephan said.

Currently, fentanyl is wildly popular among cartels and drug dealers, as it is inexpensive to produce in bulk and intensely potent.

“The problem is that fentanyl is extremely cheap. It is a synthetic opiate 50 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more powerful than heroin,” Olesky, an ex-Drug Enforcement Agency agent, said.

As a result, only two milligrams of fentanyl, as little as 10 grains of salt, is enough to cause respiratory arrest and shortly after, brain death, according to Stephan.

Stephan suspects that the growing number of overdoses among young people is a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown of school and, by extension, the shutdown of extracurricular activities and student resources that promoted a healthy student lifestyle exposed a vulnerability among some students. Potentially due to overexposure to online environments, many students began experimenting with drugs and buying them through online channels. Starting with prescription pills, more students came into contact with drug dealers, followed by consistent drug usage.

“We’re seeing the progression of pills prescribed by doctors to prescription pills procured illicitly being sold out in town. Then we’re seeing the progression into opiates, then students go to heroin and experiment, and they’ll go to fentanyl,” Olesky said.

At the Pacific Bay Recovery Center, a local rehab drug treatment center, Jacob Alonso, the director of Outreach and Admissions, explained that many of their patients were often prescribed opioid medications by their doctors before eventually resorting to the streets for opioids they don’t realize are laced with fentanyl.

“An opiate withdrawal is sickening. It’s painful, so they must continue to feed the monster … Did they want that lifestyle? Of course not,” Olesky said.

While fentanyl usage is not common in SDUHSD, some TPHS students have started seeing its impact on nearby communities. A TPHS student recalls a “frightening” experience a friend had to go through when he came into contact with fentanyl.

“A friend of mine had to go to the ER, and he had to get his stomach pumped [after overdosing on fentanyl],” a TPHS student said. “That was mad scary, I didn’t think it could actually happen until that point.”

The increase of fentanyl-laced products requires greater precaution when it comes to taking any drugs from the street.

“We are seeing marijuana laced with it now. So we have pills, fake pills, ranging anywhere from fake Oxycontin, Percocet, Demerol and Opana. We are seeing fake Xanax, Z bars, believe it or not coming across the border, fake Tylenol and you cannot tell the difference,” Olesky said.

In the specific case of THC vape cartridges, a TPHS student revealed his method for identifying whether a vape cartridge is laced with fentanyl or not.

“You can tell there’s like a little bubble usually inside of the [vape cartridge]. If you flip it around, and you see that the bubble comes up really fast, then it’s definitely fake. Don’t smoke it, stay off it. But if it goes up really slow, like a really slow-moving bubble, then it’s usually real,” the student said.

Like an asymptomatic virus, it is almost impossible to tell if a drug is contaminated with fentanyl or not.

“Most of the deaths are accidental. This is a person who is not looking to die off of these pills,” Olesky said. “Pill parties are back, the people are younger, they think they’re invincible. You try things and you experiment and sometimes you make a mistake.”

Due to the sheer amount of fentanyl coming into San Diego from all around the country, an equally large operation to tackle the crisis is required.

“We’re addressing this on a multipronged scale with our U.S. Attorney to stop the supply coming through the border. Our office has been prosecuting drug dealers,” Stephan said. “And it’s very important to point out that some of the drug dealers are people’s friends … they go to school, share this stuff and it ends up killing others.”

When it comes to deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses, drug dealers are charged with homicide.

“The real win is if we can prevent a young person from dying in the first place, but prosecuting and bringing accountability to keep society safe and to make sure that a person doesn’t sell to another individual is a close second,” Stephan said.

Most importantly, Stephan recognizes that “scare tactics’’ can only do so much. In the long run, one of the most effective ways of preventing more overdoses is to extensively educate students on a monthly basis, if not more often, about the medical science behind why synthetic opioids specifically should be avoided at all costs.

“All of our kids, all our students, starting in fifth grade at the latest, [should be taught] about fentanyl and about methamphetamine because those are the two drugs that are absolutely killing our community,” Stephan said. “They should be given the real medical information, what it does to your breathing, how your breathing begins to diminish before you’re even aware of it.”

Fortunately, the timely actions that Stephan and San Diego as a community take offer hope amid a crisis. Although not by much, in 2022, San Diego is experiencing a smaller increase in overdoses compared to the doubling numbers in the years prior. Olesky voiced his hope that through his work and the community’s efforts, one day, all students will have the opportunity to live healthier, stronger and more fruitful lives.

“I want all of our students, in or out of our district, to be able to be all they can be, and love life, move on and be productive and meet their dreams and aspirations,” Oleksy said. “And drugs and alcohol will always take that away.”

Read on Issuu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post Alyssa Ahn reminisces on her time at US Junior Open
Next post Falcons Water Polo Soars Past Clairemont