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US sees major spike in teen overdose deaths

Published: Feb. 18, 2022 at 6:44 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 18, 2022 at 7:09 PM CST
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(CNN) – The number of children overdosing and dying from illegal drugs is skyrocketing.

Many young teens are unknowingly buying counterfeit pills, often through social media, that are laced with fentanyl, an opioid up to 100 times more potent than heroin.

In June 2020, Amy Neville found her son, Alexander, dead in his bedroom.

“I went in his room, and he was blue, just laying on his bean bag chair, just like he had gone to bed, you know, just like he’d fallen asleep there,” she said.

Alexander was just 14 years old, an age still familiar with Legos, Boy Scouts and teddy bears. He died of a fentanyl overdose.

“It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I wake up and it gets hard to understand that this is our life, but here we are,” Neville said.

Fentanyl is a highly toxic synthetic opioid and it’s been killing middle schoolers nationwide.

Special Agent Robert Murphy with the Drug Enforcement Administration said that kids who think they’re buying Xanax or OxyContin from a drug deal are getting knock-offs, fake pills that are laced with fentanyl most of the time.

“They should be watching cartoons and eating bad cereal,” Murphy said. “They shouldn’t be dropping dead from taking counterfeit pills.”

Just a few milligrams of the drug can be fatal.

“In our laboratory in DEA we’re seeing 40% of the pills that are being analyzed now have a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl,” Murphy said.

Previous generations of middle schoolers were never usually taking such a dangerous risk if they experimented with substances.

“We’re dealing with a different drug threat. Fentanyl has changed that game,” Murphy said.

While still rare, drug deaths among children ages 10 to 14 have more than tripled from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis for CNN carried out by the CDC.

In just the past month, 12-year-old Dalilah Mederos died of fentanyl poisoning in California.

Fentanyl also killed a 13-year-old boy in Connecticut. Police said they recovered 40 bags of fentanyl from his school and about 100 bags from his bedroom.

Alexander Neville’s parents said their son believed he was taking legitimate prescription medications.

“The pill that Alexander took, if it was a legitimate prescription pill, he’d still be here, but instead, that pill had enough fentanyl in it to kill at least four people,” Amy Neville said.

Neville said she had no idea just one pill would kill him.

“We had no idea about fentanyl,” she said. “We talked to our kid. If talking to Alexander is all it took, that kid would’ve lived forever. But we were not talking about the right thing because we didn’t know about it.”

Neville said Alexander connected with his drug dealer through Snapchat.

Buying drugs on social media has become so common that the DEA has worked to figure out which emojis teens use to make the purchases.

“If you put a cookie, a rocket and a candy bar together it looks innocent, but what I just said is I received a large shipment of highly potent Xanax bars,” Murphy said.

Snapchat said it uses tools to detect drug-dealing activity, shut down dealers, and is bringing every resource to fight the fentanyl epidemic in its app and across the tech industry.

Alexander’s mother said he had a bright future in front of him before he died.

“He loved history... he dreamt of one day being director of the Smithsonian,” she said.

Now, on a shelf in his bedroom sits an urn with his ashes.

Experts said drug dealers add fentanyl to pills because it’s cheap and gets the customer addicted so they come back for more.

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