“It’s just this once. Everyone does it. It’s not that big of a deal,” a teen’s voice says over footage of a young person taking a pill. Then come ambulance sirens and a heart monitor, beeping. “Oh my God, that could’ve been me.” The screen then shows the text, “Fentanyl is changing everything.”
The video, presented by the City of Henderson, was unveiled at a fentanyl awareness summit hosted at the College of Southern Nevada Henderson campus on May 9. In opening remarks, Mayor Michelle Romero said that by 2018, Henderson’s strategic plan identified the “opioid epidemic” as a cause for concern.
“We didn’t have the resources or expertise at the time, but by learning from our law enforcement agencies and public health partners, we began to work more directly on prevention as well as harm reduction,” she said. “With the addition of opioid settlement funds, we have also gained resources, awareness and partnerships [to] respond.”
Romero added that the videos would be disseminated through digital ads. Those, along with other print and billboard promotions, are available to view at riskitallwithfentanyl.com. “We need to warn our young people of the true dangers of the drugs they are exposed to in ways that they can relate to,” Romero said.
In recent years, community leaders, law enforcement officials and public health advocates have increasingly sounded the alarm about fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than morphine. Law enforcement reps at the May 9 event said they believe drug traffickers are mixing fentanyl in their products—namely counterfeit pills—to make them more addictive. And many who consume the drug don’t realize it’s present in whatever they are taking.
But just two milligrams of fentanyl—“enough to fit on the tip of a pencil”— can be a lethal dose, Kevin Adams, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Las Vegas District, said during a law enforcement panel with Henderson and Las Vegas Metropolitan police.
“People look at these tablets, these fake oxycodone tablets, and they don’t look deadly like crack cocaine. And kids take them, thinking that it’s not a big deal, that it’s harmless. It’s literally playing Russian roulette with every tablet you take,” Adams said, advising parents to regularly check their kids’ phones for signs they might be buying illicit drugs online or through social media.
While community awareness is one step toward addressing the proliferation of fentanyl and associated drug overdose deaths, police and the Nevada attorney general have said their strategies are targeted at stopping traffickers, rather than arresting their customers.
According to Adams, two Mexican cartels are credited as the main sources of the drug. “They have been shipping fentanyl fake pills across our border. And the distribution points have been Los Angeles and Phoenix. Those are the main sources where fentanyl is coming from to Las Vegas,” Adams said. “In 2022, [the DEA] seized 50.6 million [fake pills]. Six out of 10 of those tablets had a potential lethal dosage.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, and 67% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the DEA.
In December 2022, the CDC reported that median monthly drug overdose deaths among 10-19 year olds involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl increased by 182% (from 22 to 62 deaths) nationwide from 2019 to 2021. Of all drug-overdose deaths for that age group during the same time frame, 84% involved fentanyl.
“It doesn’t discriminate between anybody. … The biggest shock to the conscience is the children and casual drug users—people that don’t know what they’re [taking],” said Branden Clarkson, a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police captain. “You see a child that looks just like your child that has passed away. It’s heartbreaking. And you have to come back down the stairs, and the family’s staring at you, crying, looking for any sign of hope that you can do something to bring their child back.”
The CDC’s report also highlighted some areas where response could be improved. “Two-thirds of decedents had one or more potential bystanders present, but most provided no overdose response,” the report reads.
The Henderson summit included a presentation from Henderson Fire Department about how to recognize an overdose, how to administer the medication naloxone,
widely known as Narcan, to reverse its effects and other safety measures. With regard to policy, harm reduction advocates have said Good Samaritan laws, which protect people from drug possession charges while reporting an emergency such as an overdose, also help with that statistic.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, who spoke at the Henderson fentanyl awareness summit, says he and Democratic lawmakers are working on two “companion bills” to address fentanyl.
Ford’s Senate Bill 35 (SB35), which passed the upper house by a 15-6 vote, would decrease the threshold to prosecute for drug possession and increase penalties for possession and trafficking. Under current law, a person can be prosecuted for low-level trafficking if they are in possession of 100 grams or more, and for high-level trafficking if found in possession of 400 grams or more of fentanyl or a substance containing fentanyl (a Schedule 2 drug). SB35 would create a mid-level category starting at possession of 14 grams or more and setting high-level trafficking at 28 grams.
Under Ford’s bill, the felony charges for mid-level trafficking would carry sentences of one to 20 years in prison, with those penalties escalating for high-level traffickers. During a speech at the Henderson panel, Ford said the bill would assist in prosecuting traffickers.
“You heard them talk about two milligrams of fentanyl being able to kill people. One hundred grams is where we are. And so, my office has endeavored to lower the amount of fentanyl needed to charge,” he said. “The bill is not intended to do something we’ve seen happen already … to re-create a failed war on drugs. … This bill is not intended to incarcerate those who are struggling with addiction.”
The attorney general’s address to the Henderson audience echoed what he has said in discussions in Carson City. During a April 10 Senate Committee on Judiciary meeting, representatives from Washoe and Clark County Public Defenders, along with the ACLU of Nevada, testified in opposition to both bills, claiming that they would not deter illicit fentanyl manufacturers and traffickers, and that the laws could even increase the risk of death by overdose for people who, knowingly or not, use the substance.
Under former governor Brian Sandoval, Nevada enacted a Good Samaritan law in 2015, which applies to fentanyl. Asked whether the draft legislation for SB35 includes another explicit Good Samaritan provision, Ford said he was unable to get such a measure into his bill.
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, a former prosecutor, is sponsoring a “companion bill,” SB343, which would set the threshold for low-level trafficking at possession of 4 grams of fentanyl. The bill, which also passed the Senate with a 15-6 vote, likewise does not have an explicit Good Samaritan provision in it.
At press time, both bills were scheduled for a hearing with the Assembly Committee on Judiciary, before they go to a vote in the lower house.
During the summit, Ford touted more than $231 million brought to the state in 2022 after joining a multistate lawsuit against three of the largest opioid distributors. On May 16, his office announced more than $151 million in settlements with CVS Pharmacy. And in December, the attorney general’s office announced a total of $35.5 million in funds and settlements with pharmacy companies.
At a May 3 press conference with Democratic leaders in Carson City, Ford said the settlement money could be used to provide more accurate drug testing methods for law enforcement and prosecutors.
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