The West Coast is awash in deadly fake oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl. (Courtesy of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office)
Oregon teens are dying of drug-related causes faster than in any other state, and the government needs to do more about it, members of Oregon’s congressional delegation said Thursday.
U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Earl Blumenauer, Andrea Salinas and Val Hoyle urged U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a letter to work with school districts to combat the country’s growing opioid crisis and substance misuse in schools.
“If we are truly committed to ending the opioid crisis, then we must ensure that our students, as well as their parents and teachers, are equipped with all of the resources they need, including access to naloxone and successful drug-prevention education programs,” they wrote.
Law enforcement officials say China is manufacturing illicitly manufactured fentanyl and selling it to Mexico where it’s being turned into pills that closely resemble prescription oxycodone or benzodiazepines such as Xanax and sold on the streets.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from May 2020 to April 2021 deaths due to accidental overdose surpassed 100,000 for the first time on record. About 64% of them were attributed to synthetic opioids, including illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine.
In Oregon, fentanyl-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed, increasing by 74% from 2019 to 2020, for a total of 298 fentanyl-related deaths in 2020, state data shows.
What’s more, the rate of Oregon teenagers dying due to drug-related causes is growing faster than in any other state. Adolescent drug overdose deaths have more than doubled nationwide since 2019 and more than tripled in Oregon in the same time period. This is largely due to the proliferation of fentanyl, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition to their request to work with school districts, the Oregon congressional members want the U.S. Department of Education to provide an update on its progress and to share best practices.
In the letter, they highlighted Beaverton School District’s “Fake and Fatal” campaign, which provides resources for students, parents and teachers on the dangers of synthetic opioids, as well as key contacts and hotlines should a student ingest these drugs.
The district has also adopted a non-punitive approach to students with substance use issues, according to a recent press release sent out by Merkley’s office. The district provides specialists and social workers to each campus to help students and families find the help they need.
“School districts can no longer pretend that fake pills made from potentially deadly fentanyl are not a threat to their students,” Shellie Bailey-Shah, public communications officer for the Beaverton School District, said in a statement shared in the recent press release. “Fentanyl poisonings are a reality across the country.
“As educators, we have a responsibility to inform our students, parents and staff about the dangers,” she added. “I implore school districts to be proactive and not wait until their communities suffer a student death that could have been prevented through education.”
Efforts in Oregon
This federal attempt to address the problem via schools aligns with similar efforts in Oregon.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers progressed Senate Bill 238 through the Oregon Senate. It’s now scheduled for a public hearing next week with the House education committee.
If passed, the bill would direct the Oregon Health Authority, State Board of Education and Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to collaborate on developing curricula supplements related to the dangers of synthetic opioids and laws that provide protections for those who report drug or alcohol use or who seek treatment for themselves or others.
The bill passed nearly unanimously through Oregon’s Senate, with one vote against and one excused.
Marc Siegel, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education, told the Capital Chronicle the state agency is watching the progression of the bill and will be ready to support its implementation.
In response to Thursday’s letter, Siegel said, “Our federal delegation and community leaders are raising important concerns, and ODE stands with them in shared concern and commitment.”
Siegel said the state agency is working to address the issue, for example, by partnering with the Oregon Health Authority in 2022 to develop the Fentanyl & Opioid Response Toolkit for Schools for educators, administrators, school nurses, students and families.
The toolkit provides information about how schools can create an emergency protocol to administer the opioid reversal drug naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, and how to access, administer and store the opioid overdose prevention medication, he said. The proposed policies and procedures outlined in the toolkit are strongly encouraged, but they are not currently required of Oregon schools.
“With each young life lost,” Siegel said, “the impact of the opioid crisis becomes all the more personal, impactful and real for all of us and calls on all of us to stand and act together.”
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