Seized pills containing fentanyl (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Adolescent drug counselors and school district officials are warning Salem teens about the increasing prevalence of fentanyl in the local drug supply as seizures of the drug and overdoses have increased over the past year.

Salem police say they’re increasingly finding the opioid, with detectives seizing 38,431 pills containing fentanyl in 2021, according to Lt. Ben Bales, who oversees the Salem Police Department’s Strategic Investigations Unit.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid developed to treat severe pain and is often given to cancer patients. But when taken illicitly, particularly when users aren’t aware it’s been mixed into the drug they’re taking, it can be deadly. Nationally, 36,000 Americans died in 2019 from overdoses caused by synthetic opioids, including fentanyl - nearly 12 times the number in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said that number has likely increased during the Covid pandemic.

Bales said the department didn’t routinely track overdoses in the city prior to 2021. Salem emergency medical services responded to 319 medical calls for drug or alcohol overdoses in 2021, according to data provided by Capt. Darrin George, the city Fire Department’s emergency medical services coordinator. Bales said 18 of those were fatal, and 11 fatalities involved fentanyl.

During the first three months of 2022, the fire department had 65 overdose calls.

Bales said police responded to 10 of those overdoses. Three were fatal, including one minor, he said, and fentanyl was involved in one and suspected in the other two.

Jacob Vida, an adolescent substance abuse counselor at Bridgeway Recovery Services, said it’s rare for teens to use opioids deliberately.

Bridgeway counselors are under contract with the Salem-Keizer School District to help teens with substance abuse problems in middle and high schools, and currently treat about 140 district students, plus another 120 teens in their community program.

Vida said alcohol and marijuana use are the primary reasons students get referred to him. But teens also seek out prescription pills, and Vida said they’re vulnerable to accidentally ingesting fentanyl when purchasing drugs.

“Unbeknownst to them, a lot of the pills they get are fake,” he said. “The kids that are using opiates, it’s typically unintentional. The thing that they’re finding fentanyl in a lot right now is (counterfeit) Xanax.”

The school district emailed parents and guardians ahead of spring break warning them about the dangers of pills laced with fentanyl.

Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management, said the email wasn’t in response to specific incidents in local schools.

He said school employees haven’t found any fentanyl among district students.

“It’s more of us seeing what’s happening in our community, what’s happening nationally,” he said.

The district was working on making naloxone, a medication to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, available in schools before school nurses got sidetracked responding to Covid, he said. The drug is often sold under the brand name Narcan.

Baldridge said they’re now renewing those efforts and said they hope to have the medication in place before the end of the school year, though he didn’t have an exact timeline.

“Hopefully we never need it,” he said.

Dr. Sarah Leitz, Kaiser Permanente’s chief of addiction medicine, said substance use among teens and adults has increased during the pandemic as people became more isolated and had fewer outlets like activities and social time.

“People are seeking ways to get relief or to feel enjoyment, and a lot of their normal things they might have done in the past are not always available to them,” she said.

Leitz said the best way to keep teens safe is to be open with them.

“We really need to listen to our adolescents and hear what they're struggling with, what they're experiencing and provide them with strategies to cope with it,” she said. “Find ways for enjoyment, ways they can decompress.”

She said aside from not using drugs, the best ways to stay safe are to never use alone and to keep Narcan on hand in case of an overdose. The overdose reversal drug is available without a prescription at most pharmacies.

Vida said the teens he works with are smart, and most are experimenting with friends rather than deliberately seeking out drugs. But they often lack the information they need to stay safe.

“So many of the kids at these schools have so many questions about drugs and they don’t feel like they can ask anybody,” he said.

Well-intentioned parents may judge teens for asking questions or assume seeking information about drugs means they’re using, he said, which makes it harder for adolescents to get accurate information.

“I’m a firm believer that if every kid in the district was informed on fake pills, what they are, the fact that they can look identical to the same pill they can pull out a prescription pill bottle at home, (they) would probably think twice if they’re put in a scenario where something is put in front of them,” he said. “The truth is, a lot of kids have never had that conversation and they don’t know, so they take the pill.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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