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Opinion | Fentanyl-laced pills are killing teens. Here’s how to stop it.

Opinion | Fentanyl-laced pills are killing teens. Here’s how to stop it.

Logan Rachwal, 19, had just started his freshman year at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. On Valentine’s Day in 2021, he had an argument with his girlfriend and decided to take a Percocet, a painkiller, that he had bought through the social media app Snapchat.

He didn’t know it was a fake Percocet made to look like the real thing — or that it was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Logan dozed off in his dorm room and never woke up.

The year that Logan died, there were more than 6,000 deaths from opioids among 15- to 24-year-olds, almost a 10-fold increase since 2000. Fentanyl was involved in more than 90 percent of those deaths.

“If you had told me 10, 20 years ago that my son would die from drugs, I would have said, ‘Oh no, not my kid,’” Logan’s mother, Erin, told me. She describes her and her husband Rick as “an average family.” They lived in a suburb west of Milwaukee, went to church and brought up Logan and his younger brother, Caden, with a “good moral compass.”

No one at home used drugs, but in high school, Logan became involved with other kids who did. He also struggled with depression and anxiety. Erin, herself a licensed clinical therapist, worked hard to find treatment for Logan. He was improving in an out-of-state program, but when he returned, he started hanging out with the same friends again.

Erin knew that Logan had experimented with alcohol and marijuana, but she didn’t know until after his death that he had also been using pills to cope with his internal anguish. Unfortunately, many counterfeit pills sold online as Xanax, Ecstasy, Percocet and Adderall are now laced with fentanyl. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 6 out of 10 illegal pills contain a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl.

Fentanyl is so powerful that it can stop someone’s breathing within five minutes of ingestion. The person will die unless they are immediately resuscitated with the opioid antidote naloxone.

Erin strongly believes that naloxone should be accessible everywhere. “Everyone should have it in their car, their purse, their house.” she said. I agree. Schools, stadiums and other public places should have the medication alongside AEDs, and everyone should have it in their medicine cabinets.

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Naloxone is now available over the counter, but the price — about $50 for a pack of two — is prohibitively high for many people. Those who cannot afford it should ask their local and state health department whether they can get it free of charge.

Erin also emphasizes that societal perception needs to change from normalizing pills to educating kids from an early age that they shouldn’t be taken unless they come from a doctor. “We teach kids not to cross the street without looking both ways,” she told me. “We also have to teach them don’t put things into your body unless you know what it is.”

Even medications that come from legitimate sources can be dangerous, which is why families must lock up their medicine cabinets. One recent study found that opioids accounted for more than half of accidental fatal poisonings in children 5 years of age and younger. Over-the-counter medications can have deadly toxicities, too. Tylenol ingestion is the leading cause of acute liver failure leading to transplantation in the United States. Just weeks ago, a 13-year-old boy died after taking part in a TikTok challenge encouraging people to consume large amounts of Benadryl.

Curbing drug poisonings will also require far more regulation of social media companies. “As a clinician and as a mom, I can tell you with at least 90 percent certainty that Logan would still be here if there wasn’t social media,” Erin told me. Not only did social media use worsen his mental health struggles, but these platforms are also a thriving marketplace for counterfeit pills. As DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said during a CNN interview, social media companies must shut down posts by drug cartels and allow outside experts to improve the safety of online platforms.

While these and other enforcement efforts are underway, Erin and Rick Rachwal have started a nonprofit, the Love Logan Foundation, that raises awareness about fentanyl poisoning and provides support for parents and families. They have given presentations at schools and community events and have helped to persuade 12 universities, including the one where their son died, to install naloxone boxes throughout their campuses.

Logan’s younger brother, Caden, just turned 20. Erin told me that he often thinks about all the things he is experiencing that his brother never will. “If Caden has kids one day, they’ll never have cousins,” she said. Every day is a challenge for Erin and her family as they mourn Logan’s fateful decision to take a counterfeit pill that would end up killing him. “All kids make mistakes, but they shouldn’t have to die from them.”

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