Educators, law enforcementspeak to fentanyl problem
By Chris Edwards
SPURGER — Last September, Brandy Melo received a call that no parent wants to receive. One of her sons called her to inform her that her 13-year-old son Kaysen Villarreal was dead.
Villarreal was the victim of an unintentional fentanyl overdose. The teenager had attended a sleepover, and was given a blue pill, which his friends informed him was Aleve. Melo tearfully recounted her late son’s story, and the nightmarish way she found out about his death.
The young overdose victim was more than just a statistic, as his mother recounted in an interview that was screened at a community meeting hosted by Spurger ISD last Tuesday night. He was a son, a brother and a teenaged boy with a zest for life.
Villarreal’s story is common to poisoning deaths among young people. According to statistics available from 2021, from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 72,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, opioids, including fentanyl, are the most common cause of poisoning deaths among children, aged five and under.
At the meeting, which was hosted to inform community members about the dangers of the deadly drug, two regional law enforcement officials Matthew Quinn and Brit Featherston, who work as prosecuting attorners with the Eastern District of Texas, presented the film featuring Villarreal’s story, along with facts and infographics about fentanyl.
Part of the problem, according to Featherstone, as to why the drug is becoming such a problem, is there is a lack of media attention and/or information, in general, about it within the public sphere.
The fentanyl that is being put into, or “laced” within black market drugs, such as heroin, meth and illicit pharmaceuticals is different from the pharmaceutical of the same name that is administered in clinical settings, Featherston said. The fentanyl in question is manufactured in China and India, and cartels are able to maximize profits by utilizing the drug into other drugs to increase the desired effect (i.e. the “high). Featherston said that cartels can make up to six times the profit from fentanyl, due to the small amounts needed, than from a drug like cocaine. The drug is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
The resulting overdoses “is just part of doing business” for the dealers, Featherston said. Typically, fentanyl overdoses don’t fit the profile of the typical drug user, or addict, and that, according to Featherston and Quinn, is another reason why there has been relatively little attention focused on the problem.
Further compounding problems with the drug from a law enforcement perspective is the fact that it takes advanced testing protocols to detect fentanyl’s presence, Featherston said.
Information available from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) states that seven out of 10 pills with fentanyl are potentially deadly, and that in 2022, the agency seized more than 59.6 million fentanyl-laced fake pills, and in excess of 13,200 pounds of fentanyl powder, which is enough to result in more than 396 million lethal doses. That fact, Featherston said, is enough to kill the entire population of the United States.
Spurger ISD has the overdose reversal medication naloxone (Narcan) on hand, according to SISD superintendent Jeff Burnthorn. The drug, Burnthorn said, is “at least an arrow in the quiver to deal with this problem.”
Burnthorn and SISD counselor Arlene Robinson organized the meeting, and their measures were lauded by the visiting lawmen. Featherston said all school districts should invest in Narcan in case an overdose is suspected.
The drug blocks the effects of opiates on the brain and restores breathing. It will only work on a person if they have opiates in their system, but otherwise will not harm. The way fentanyl works to cause an overdose, Quinn explained, is that it works to shut down pulmonary function.
Among the information presented at the meeting was the fact that fentanyl, itself, is ranked as the number one killer of persons aged 18-45 in the United States.
Another story that painted a picture attesting to the “it could happen to anyone” idea of the drug’s tragic outcome centered around Blain Padgett, a Sour Lake native, who, according to Featherston “did everything right,” concerning his diet, workout routines and other health practices, toward accomplishing his dream of someday playing college football.
Padgett, who died on March 2, 2018, took what he believed was a hydrocodone pill from a trusted friend and teammate at Rice University. The pill, which Padgett took for shoulder pain, contained the deadly drug, and he overdosed.
The teammate was arrested and federally charged. Since then, laws have strengthened pertaining to fentanyl distribution. Even if someone unknowingly gives a person a drug containing fentanyl and death results, that person is liable to spend a minimum of 20 years in federal prison, or 10-99 years in prison under Texas law.
“This drug is affecting people just like you,” Quinn said, after he told a story that hit close to home for him. Quinn spoke of a relative, a young woman, who became addicted to prescription pills. When she could no longer obtain prescriptions, she began buying her drugs on the black market, and the pills contained fentanyl, which led to a fatal OD, he said.
This year, Quinn said, the DEA is estimating that 120,000 Americans will die as a result of the drug.
Robinson spoke to the crowd at the end of the meeting and encouraged everyone in attendance to involve the community in the concern over the drug. The drugs, she said, are already present in Tyler County, and are already a problem.
“We need to see the community intrested in this,” she said.