Rising drug overdose deaths and the effects of fentanyl

(CBS) – With drug overdoses skyrocketing, states and the federal government are looking for new ways to tackle the crisis.

Drug overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 during the 12 months ending in April 2021. That’s up more than 28 percent from the year before.

Synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, are among the biggest causes.

Customs and border protection says OST fentanyl arrives in the US through ports of entry along the southwest border, in cars and commercial trucks.

CBS got an exclusive look at new federal government technology, and spoke to a parent who’s trying to make a difference.

“Right in here’s where his ashes reside…I come here every morning and I kiss this box in the morning and I, and I kiss it at night before I go to bed.”

Jaime Puerta’s son Daniel was 16 when he died in 2020.

“Oh. When I opened the door to his room on April the 1st, I saw my son lying in, with his arms across his chest. His eyes were slit. He was ashen gray and he had a blue tint on top of his lips,” he said. “And I just started screaming from the top of my lungs, ‘Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.'”

Near his son was half of what looked like a blue Oxycodone pill, which Jaime says Daniel bought from a dealer on social media.

Puerta was told his son had overdosed.

“And I said, ‘an overdose?’ And I go, ‘Well, what did he overdose on?’ The pill that he had ingested was pure fentanyl. This is not an overdose,” he said. “This is a poisoning.”

“This is an entirely different drug that my son had absolutely no idea that what he was taking,” he continued.

Daniel had struggled with substance use and mental health in the past, but his dad said he wasn’t addicted to pain pills.

Puerta said the way fentanyl has transformed the drug landscape urges a new conversation around drugs, in which there’s little to no space for curiosity or experimentation.

“The consumption of any kind of illicit narcotic or drugs is like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun, because you don’t know if it’s gonna take your life.”

2021 was the deadliest year for overdoses in the US

Since 2018, the DEA has seen a more than 50-fold increase in the number of counterfeit fentanyl pills seized and those containing a lethal dose increased dramatically.

“When teenagers attempt to purchase the prescription drugs on the black market, more often than not they are sold fentanyl, colored, sized and stamped to look identical to the prescription drug,” DEA Special Agent Bill Bodner said.

From 2014 to 2019, China was the leading source of illegal fentanyl. Since then, Mexico tops the list.

And while seizures of cocaine, meth and heroin by customs and border protection have decreased in recent months, fentanyl continues to go up.

Fentanyl is more addicting and more powerful than other drugs, and that makes it better business in the black market.

At the Brownsville, Texas port of entry, stopping the rising flow of it is a constantly evolving task.

How bad is it right now?

“It’s just very challenging at times, it can be very challenging.”

CBP Director Tater Ortiz gave an inside look into the agency’s hi-tech efforts.

“This is the latest and most powerful technology that US Customs and Border Protection is using at ports of entry to take photos, x-rays and detect any kind of smuggled goods or people across the border,” Ortiz said. “They believe it will help curb the national fentanyl crisis.”

He said approximately 70-80 percent is being scanned and adjudicated through the x-ray currently, whereas in the past it was in the low 20s.

Brownsville is one of at least two ports of entry using the new technology, so far two out of 328 nationwide, but the federal government hopes to expand it further.

“This equipment we call pre-primary before the trailer actually meets the officer, so we have time to adjudicate it before it arrives to us,” Ortiz said. “Which allows us time to adjudicate the image and speed up the process up.”

He confirmed it’s more efficient because before you have that interaction with the officer, the officer can better target who needs to have that interaction.

“We now know what’s in that trailer already, not just based on the manifest, but now we have an actual image to mirror it up with,” he said.

Jaime Puerta can’t fight the supply of drugs, but he started a foundation to educate teens and parents, hoping awareness in the classroom can save lives.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” he said. “But education is key. We have to get the education into our high schools, even if it scares them.”

When asked where he finds solace, Puerta said, “I find solace knowing my son is in a much better place than I am, and that he will be waiting for me when it’s my time to go. And then he can say, ‘Dad, you did good in my name. You did your best. I saw you trying to save lives. I’m proud of you, dad.’”

Part of Puerta’s advocacy is awakening people to the ways that fentanyl has transformed the drug landscape, and how it now impacts not just addicts, but experienced recreational drug users, curious teens, anyone taking a drug from the black market.

Decades of data shows the “Just Say No” campaigns of the past have not worked, so what’s his message?

He said the way things are now, especially for young people who wouldn’t have access to drug testing strips or safe injection sites, “don’t do drugs” is all he can come up with.

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