Pills, powders laced with fentanyl cause increased deaths by overdose among Southern Nevada youth

By: - August 25, 2022 5:32 am

Authentic oxycodone M30 tablets (top) vs. counterfeit oxycodone M30 tablets containing fentanyl (bottom). (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; Arek Socha from Pixabay)

Overdose deaths from people under 25 years old doubled from 2019 to 2020 in Clark County. Those numbers continue to climb in 2021, according to preliminary data from Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD).

The increase in deaths are associated with counterfeit pills like M30, a prescription opioid, or Adderall and powders like cocaine, but most taking these drugs are unaware that they contain fentanyl, said Jessica Johnson, senior health educator at SNHD.

“This has led some individuals like family members and friends who have lost loved ones to characterize this as a poisoning,” she said. 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its inability to be detected by sight, taste, smell or touch makes it harder for individuals to know its presence in their drug of choice. 

“A small amount of fentanyl can be deadly, as little as two micrograms which is about a grain of salt, can cause a fatal overdose,” said Johnson.

Over the last three years, several high profile news stories broke involving counterfeit M30 pills, Adderall and other pills like Xanax and MDMA, along with cocaine laced with fentanyl.

 “If you think you’re getting Adderall and you’re not, you’re getting fentanyl,” said Jamie Ross, executive director of the PACT (Prevention, Advocacy, Choices, Team Work) Coalition. “They [pills like M30] are perceived to be safer and one thing we know about substance use is as perception of harm goes down, use goes up.”

If someone doesn’t know what is in the drugs they’re consuming, it’s easier to take too much of them and risk overdose, she said. 

To date, 40,228 pills were seized by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) in 2022. Those numbers are on track with trends from 2021 when 55,562 pills were seized and in 2019, when 51,500 pills were seized. But, 2020 saw roughly half those numbers, at 28,008 pills.

The quantity of pills seized decreased in 2020, but that had more to do with the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders than a reduction in supply, according to LVMPD, who didn’t break down the numbers of pills by  type. 

However, during 2020, deaths by fentanyl overdose were still on the rise. 

Seven years ago, in 2015, there were 0 reported fentanyl related deaths for residents 18 and under and only 1 for those between 18 and 25, according to SNHD’s data. 

Preliminary SNHD data shows that between 2020 and 2021, 93 Southern Nevadans between 18 and 25 died by fentanyl overdoses. In 2020, 53 people between 18-25 died and 9 people died who were under the age of 18. In 2019, only 13 people between 18-25 died and that number was 3 in 2018. 

From 2015 to 2021, that’s a 3,900% change.

Efforts have been underway at the state and local level to address the increase — including making access to harm-reduction tools like free fentanyl test strips and naloxone, a reversal overdose drug, more readily available to the public. 

Last year state lawmakers removed fentanyl test strips from being categorized – and criminalized – as drug paraphernalia, and SNHD launched its program in December 2021, making the strips available at the SNHD pharmacy. 

The strips are easy to use and can test fentanyl in both powders and pills, said Johnson.

For those looking for help, visit: behavioralhealthnv.org, to find free naloxone in Nevada, visit nvopioidresponse.org/naloxone-finder and to learn more about using fentanyl test strips, visit nvopioidresponse.org/fentanyl-test-strips. In Las Vegas, people can also visit the Harm Reduction Center or the SNHD clinic, 280 S. Decatur Blvd.

The bulk of people using drugs are concerned with fentanyl in their supplies —86% would use the strips and 70% would change their behavior by either reducing their dosage or not using if they knew fentanyl was found, according to a John Hopkins and Brown University study.

The dosage of fentanyl can vary pill by pill even in the same batch, so it’s important to test every time you use, Ross said. 

Festivals, like Burning Man or EDC, along with clubs and promoted parties, while notorious for illicit drug usage, have been hesitant to embrace harm reduction methods like naloxone and fentanyl test strips.

“All of us are concerned about overdoses at Burning Man, so [we are] ensuring as many people get fentanyl test strips and narcan (an opioid overdose reversal treatment),” Ross said. 

Narcan is also available for free to the public in Nevada. 

While SNHD does not have any formalized partnership with music festivals, bars or clubs it encourages those places to promote safe environments, and for the general public to know about Nevada’s Good Samaritan law, which protects people who call for help during an overdose from criminal charges, Johnson said.  

“Ultimately, the safest drug use is no drug use,” Ross said. “But we also know that there will always be people who use drugs so they can survive because no one who uses drugs deserves to die.”

Note: This story was updated to include additional data from SNHD.

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Camalot Todd
Camalot Todd

An award-winning, investigative and enterprise reporter, Camalot Todd has over seven years experience in print, digital, radio and TV journalism. She covered mental and behavioral health in New York for Spectrum News 1 Buffalo through the national service program, Report For America, where she won the Mental Health Advocates of WNY Advocacy Award in 2020 for her coverage on mental health stigma. She also served as an inaugural member of the Report For America Corps Advisory Board Member, 2021-2022. Previously, she reported on community issues in Las Vegas, including a long-term project on underage sex trafficking, for the Las Vegas Sun and its sister publication, Las Vegas Weekly. For the Sun, she wrote a pathbreaking investigative piece called, “Children on the Cusp: The transition from foster care to adulthood is leaving some behind.” The piece won the Nevada Press Association best investigative story of the year and named Camalot the Best Community Reporter of 2017. She also worked as a reporter for KUNV radio and is a graduate of University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Camalot was selected for National Press Foundation Opioid and Addiction Fellow 2021 and led the Syracuse Press Club's Journalism Lab as an educator from 2021-2022.

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