By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
City officials are taking steps to respond to a recent spike in opioid overdoses in Alexandria, particularly among youth.
According to a city news release, 12 opioid overdoses were reported in the city in April and May, six of which occurred in people under age 17. None of these overdoses were fatal and first responders administered Narcan, an opioid reversal medication, to many of the victims. Since the beginning of the year, 30 opioid overdoses have been reported in Alexandria and two people died of confirmed fentanyl overdoses.
Monica Lisle, commander of Alexandria Police Department’s criminal investigations division, said that many of the school-aged youth experiencing fentanyl-related overdoses reported using a “little blue pill” they thought was Percocet, a prescription medicine used to treat pain.
According to Lisle, illicit drugs are often laced with fentanyl, which is an inexpensive substitute that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine as a painkiller. It is more potent than any other opioid or synthetic opioid antigen and can be deadly.
“The problem is that when you have that in there, it overtakes the system,” Lisle said. “[That’s] what is so dangerous about fentanyl.”
Just a small amount of fentanyl can potentially cause an overdose in an individual, Emily Bentley, the city’s opioid response coordinator, said. Bentley called the recent increase in juvenile overdoses related to the fake blue Percocet pill “incredibly concerning.”
“If the people mixing it into drugs are not trained doctors and they’re not measuring exactly how much they put in, you never know what the fentanyl content of something you take is,” Bentley said.
Officials recently confiscated a blue pill with the imprint of a capital M inside a square, designed to mimic an authentic oxycodone 30 milligram tablet, or M30s. This is a standard method to trick buyers into purchasing what they often think are legitimate prescription medications. Many fake blue pills contain lethal amounts of illicit drugs.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 26% of tablets tested in a DEA laboratory contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, which is about two milligrams and equivalent in size to a few grains of salt.
“Distributors in the United States are selling counterfeit pills on social media, appealing to a younger audience that use these apps. Minors and young adults experimenting, as well as regular substance users, believe they are buying authentic oxycodone, Adderall, Xanax, or other medicines, but are unwittingly purchasing counterfeit pills that contain lethal amounts of drugs, usually fentanyl and methamphetamine,” according to the DEA.
Although the blue pills are a principal cause for concern, in Alexandria over the last few years fentanyl has bled into almost all illicit substances, including cocaine, crack, PCP and even marijuana.
Bentley said that this recently large target audience is different for the city, since historically the issue has affected people with longterm chronic problems. It’s now broadened to recreational users as well, so any time someone takes an illicit substance they could be putting themselves at risk for ingesting fentanyl.
Lisle highlighted the inherent risk that comes with purchasing illicit substances rather than getting prescriptions from a doctor.
“Parents have to educate their juveniles, their kids, about the dangers of fentanyl, and the fact that unless it’s a prescription that a doctor wrote for that person and filled by a legitimate pharmacy, there is no guarantee that pill doesn’t have fentanyl in it. And they’re risking their lives every time they take a pill that they don’t know where it came from,” Lisle said.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that the number of pills made with fentanyl and seized by law enforcement increased by 502% since 2019. Total opioid overdoses increased by almost 36% in Alexandria in 2020 to 84 people, including 14 fatal overdoses.
There is not one clear-cut explanation for the increase, but Bentley said that the city is mirroring a national trend that is fastest growing among 14- to 23-year-olds.
“Nationally, we are seeing a rise in counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and other opioid antigens,” Bentley said. “Alexandria is experiencing that trend, and very concerning is the school-aged youth involvement.”
As a result, the city took part in recognizing the first annual National Fentanyl Awareness Day on Tuesday to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl-laced illicit drugs.
The city’s opioid work group and Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria are working to share ways that residents can prevent substance misuse and treatment resources to manage substance use disorders.
Residents can take steps including sharing information about the dangers associated with illicit fentanyl hidden in fake pills; exploring resources available for parents and other adults to initiate conversations about substance abuse; disposing of unused or expired medication at permanent drop-off locations around the city and accessing free locking medication boxes to secure necessary prescription and over-the-counter medication.
Additionally, the city also provides free fentanyl test strips, which detect the presence of the opioid, and Narcan, which is a nasal spray that quickly reverses an opioid overdose. The Alexandria School Board recently approved making Narcan available in all city schools.
Virginia lawmakers have also taken steps in recent years to mitigate overdoses, such as with the Good Samaritan Law. Effective since July 2021, the law protects from prosecution someone who seeks medical attention for themself or another who is overdosing. The law is intended to prevent deaths by encouraging treatment without the threat of legal penalty.
“Any person who in good faith, renders emergency care or assistance, without compensation, to any ill or injured person at the scene of an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency, or en route therefrom to any hospital, medical clinic or doctor’s office, shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions resulting from the rendering of such assistance,” reads the Virginia code.
Allen Lomax, chair of the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria, expressed support for the city’s commitment to raising awareness through National Fentanyl Awareness Day.
“I’m proud that our city has joined in [this] effort to further educate our community about the dangers of fentanyl,” Lomax said.
Bentley emphasized the importance of National Fentanyl Awareness Day in creating understanding and education around the dangers of fentanyl.
“The ground underneath us in the substance abuse and misuse world is shifting, and the messaging must get out to the community regarding the extreme danger that recreational use or ‘just one time’ presents to the individual using a substance,” Bentley said. “Bringing awareness to the unique danger that fentanyl poses to our residents is critical at this time.”