14-year-old Alondra Salinas was preparing to return to school for the first time after the lifting of restrictions – but she would never sit at her desk again. According to police, he responded to an ad on Snapchat for the purchase of blue pills on offer. Ultimately, it was about opioid fentanyl. The next morning, her mother would never be able to wake her.
17-year-old Zakari Dinier was waiting for answers to his requests at various universities, when he died from drugs that were supposed to be Percocet. Sami Berman Chapman, a 16-year-old excellent student, died in his bed taking a pill he thought was Xanax.
These tragedies are not isolated incidents. The United States is experiencing an explosion in drug-related teen deaths, with experts attributing the phenomenon to pills sold on social media as various types of drugs, but they actually contain the powerful opioid fentanyl. Sometimes, the sellers of the substance deliver it to the children’s homes themselves.
Launch of deaths
Official statistics show a huge increase in drug-related deaths during the pandemic, which exceeded 93,000 during 2020 – that is, 32% more than in 2019. But the increase was nowhere faster than in the under-24 age group, according to the Guardian’s analysis of federal data for 2020.
In this age group, involuntary drug deaths increased by 50% in just one year, cutting the thread to 7,337 young people by 2020. Experts say much of this increase can be attributed to the large amounts of fentanyl circulating in USA.
In California, where fentanyl deaths were rare just five years ago, a young person under the age of 24 now dies every 12 hours, according to a Guardian analysis of state data for June 2021. This is an increase of 1,000%. compared to 2018, according to data from the California Department of Public Health on overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is a cheap, synthetic opioid, up to 100 times more potent than heroin, which, according to the federal authorities, is mixed with substances other than “traditional” drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana: in millions of pills, with an identical appearance to that of classic drugs.
But the power of these fake pills varies enormously. Federal agents have seized nearly 10 million such pills in the first nine months of 2021, more than in the previous two years. And tests performed on them show that two out of five counterfeit pills contain enough fentanyl to prove lethal, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
They buy it through social media
At the same time, experts note that drug trafficking no longer takes place in dark alleys and corners but on social networks, making it easier for young people to buy what they think is Xanax, Percocet or Oxycodone from the comfort of their own rooms.
“These are not overdose deaths, but poisonings,” said Samir Shafdar, director of the Safe Drugs Co-operation, a non-profit organization that fights counterfeit drugs. “No one will die if they take an Xanax. No one will die if they just take a Percocet. “These are fake pills.”
Author Sam Quinones, who follows the rise of fentanyl in his book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, notes that the incredible amounts that have flooded the country mean that “its times “Drug use for entertainment is over.”
“Whatever drug you try now, it’s Russian roulette.”
Ed Byrne is tired of seeing corpses.
He is a specialist agent in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigation department that works with the DEA and local San Diego police departments to investigate fentanyl-related deaths.
During the first year since the action group was founded in 2018, 92 fentanyl deaths were recorded in San Diego County. This year, Byrne told the Guardian, at current rates, the death toll will reach 810. Sometimes he receives multiple calls for deaths in the same day.
“This substance does not discriminate,” he explains. “We go and find a dead homeless man. “Then we get another call, from a $ 12 million house, and the dead man has died from the same drug.”
On the morning of June 23, 2020, the problem became personal. Byrne’s co-worker called him to tell him that his 14-year-old nephew, Alexander Neville, had been found unconscious in his room. By the time they arrived, the child was already dead.
One pill is enough
Amy Neville, Alexander’s mother, says she realized something was wrong when she opened the door to his room in the morning.
“I knocked on his door and as I touched it I knew something was wrong,” he recalls. “There was no sign of life, it was a strange feeling. I knocked on his door and he did not answer. “
The family was already working hard to help Alexander stop using marijuana. Just a day earlier, they had planned to take him to a detox clinic because he had admitted to using pills and had asked for help. But he did not manage to receive it.
“Alex had taken a pill he thought was Oxycontin – a pill. “I had no idea a pill could kill him,” his mother recalls. “He had ordered an illegally made pill from social media, just as easily as he had ordered a pizza.”
Heavy drugs a few clicks away
Police and other experts agree that it has never been so easy to order illegal pills in the country. Traffickers are no longer on the dark web but are selling in public the pills they present as Oxycontin, Percocet, Xanax and Adderall on platforms like Snapcat and Instagram. A report released in September found that Instagram brings children into contact with drugs, allowing them to buy Xanax, ecstasy and opioids in a matter of clicks.
“Easy access to fentanyl” is an underground crisis that is about to explode, “says Dr. Daniel Sicarone, Professor of Drug Addiction at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s a much bigger problem than we think. “It’s an underground volcano.”
Demonstrations of mourners
Last August, Neville and dozens of other parents of fentanyl victims created huge placards and stood holding pictures of their dead children on the steps of the California State Capitol.
They spoke in support of the US Alliance, but said that maintaining some independence was not the answer. In particular, they called on lawmakers to do something about preventing child deaths.
“Normally, now we should prepare our son for college and the only reason this is not the case is fentanyl,” said Laura Dinier. Her son, Zakari, was a talented musician who adored Snoopy and had taught his dog to “sing” to accompany him as he played the piano. He died at the age of 17.
He would be excellent in his class. But on the morning of December 27, his father found him lying in his office. He had taken a pill he thought was Percocet. He had bought it from Snapchat.
Jamie Puerta found his 16-year-old son dead in April 2020. Since then he has been staging protests outside Snapchat offices and in the streets of San Francisco, where parents are demanding that the platforms take action.
“When I found him dead, I promised myself I would do something about it,” he told the Guardian. “I’m tired of waking up every day and hearing that another child is dead.”
Social networking companies are now being forced to recognize the deadly role that their platforms can play. At a hearing in Congress this month, Instagram chief Adam Moseri was asked to respond to a series of difficult answers about the platform’s easy access to drugs.
What companies support
Speaking to the Guardian, Meta spokeswoman Jean Moran said the company was removing a huge number of drug-related posts from the platform and “has developed technology to find and remove this content quickly”.
He also referred to the company’s measurements that show that “for every 10,000 views of content on Instagram, we estimate that less than five refer to content that violates our policy (for illegal products).”
Similarly, Snapchat claims that it is making every effort to stop these dangerous activities.
Algorithms make it easy for dealers
Eric Feinberg, vice president of content control at a Coalition for a Safer Web-based watchdog, says traffickers are opening new accounts at companies’ speeds. In addition, he notes that from the moment he started following such pages, the algorithms of social networks began to suggest other similar ones.
For example, a dealer started following him out of nowhere, bombarding his messages with offers for “painkillers, anxiolytics and other products” that could be mailed to him.
At a Senate meeting in October, Sen. Amy Klobuchar commented that if social media companies were to be held accountable for drug-related deaths sold through their platforms, they might find better ways to deal with the crisis. But companies claim that as technology platforms, they have no legal responsibility for the content posted on their websites.
What parents can do
For now, with the risks still huge, Shafdar says the best thing parents and teachers can do is talk to their children about the deadly new dangers of experimenting with drugs.
“Today’s generation must learn that any pill that does not come from a pharmacy or hospital is unreliable and can be fatal.” “Unfortunately, they only learn it when they lose their friends.”