Abuse of deadly fentanyl on rise among NM teens
The digital age presents challenges for investigators when it comes to keeping up with dealers
By Victoria Traxler
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — As many of the kids at a charter school in Santa Fe were preparing for the first day of the new year in mid-August — perhaps laying out clothes and messaging friends — one student was engaging in a near-deadly experiment with synthetic opioids.
The teen boy spent the night of Aug. 15 at his grandparents' home, just down the street from his own home, while they were out of town. His mother grew concerned when he failed to respond to her text messages the next morning.
Thinking her 16-year-old son had overslept, the mother went into the house prepared to scold the teen for being late for school. When she entered the room where he was sleeping, however, her heart sank.
Her son's body was dangling over the bed, seizing, and he was unresponsive.
The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Melinda, was familiar with trips to the emergency room — her son has epilepsy. That day, doctors at a local hospital were urgently trying to airlift the boy to Albuquerque, and she knew the situation was serious.
"I wasn't too afraid until the doctors told me that the helicopter company they called couldn't come for 20 minutes and they called a different one," Melinda said in a recent interview. "I kept hearing them say, 'Call the next one. We have to get him out of here.' "
As doctors were pumping her son's chest to stimulate a response from him and asking what he had taken, the teen suddenly shouted, "Pills! Pills! Blue pills!" his mother said.
He was overdosing on fentanyl.
The teen, who asked to remain anonymous, survived. When he finally regained consciousness during his 10-day hospital stay, he learned another Santa Fe teen — a close friend — had died from what police suspect was an overdose.
"It took me aback," he said. "That's what really scared me straight."
Public health officials and local law enforcement agencies cite a troubling rise in teen use of the highly potent opioid, sometimes with deadly consequences, throughout New Mexico.
Bernie Lieving, a state harm reduction consultant and the parent of a student in the Santa Fe school district, said he is aware of at least four teens who have fatally overdosed in the state so far this year.
"They don't have a tolerance for it, and that applies across all age groups," Lieving said. "It's about tolerance and our bodies not being able to handle the potency of fentanyl."
A recent report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee found fentanyl and methamphetamine have taken hold, surpassing other prescription opioids and heroin, and contributing to 78 percent of overdose deaths in New Mexico in 2020 — with a nearly 130 percent rise in fentanyl-related deaths in one year.
Fentanyl's presence in the state has grown exponentially in the last three years. Some local health care providers said they never saw the drug appear on medication test strips until 2019.
What shocked Melinda the most about her son's scare was realizing how accessible the drug has become to kids.
"I feel like it's only the beginning," she said.
As her son was being rushed to the hospital, Melinda looked through his cellphone, trying to piece together what, exactly, had led to the nightmarish morning.
"There were tons of different groups on various social media platforms where these kids are offering up drugs," she said. "Literally, hundreds of kids every second, saying, 'Got this,' 'Looking for this,' 'Anyone need this?' "
One group chat was filled with photos of guns, marijuana and messages asking for "blues" and "snow" — opioids and cocaine.
'A miracle that he survived'
After a few grueling hours at the hospital, Melinda learned her son would live.
She knows he's one of the lucky ones.
"The doctors have made it very clear that this was a miracle that he survived," she said.
It would be days before she would learn whether the teen would be left with any lasting effects from the overdose.
Because he was unconscious for so long, his leg became numb and temporarily lame. Feeling in the leg and his ability to move it finally returned in the days after his release from the hospital.
"My leg's messed up," he said. "I can't feel part of it, and I get pains that shoot down my whole leg."
He also has been recovering from the shock of losing a friend.
The 15-year-old girl died Aug. 17 as he remained unconscious in the hospital.
Santa Fe officers who responded to her death found burned foil, a plastic pipe and a clear, empty baggie, according to a police report. Detectives said she might have overdosed, but the state Office of the Medical Investigator has not yet determined the cause of her death.
The girl's family declined to comment, citing the pending report from the OMI.
Melinda's son said he's done using illicit drugs. "I don't want anything to do with drugs anymore, just because of that experience. I don't want to touch any drugs," he said.
Before he overdosed, he cooked a salmon dinner — his favorite meal — for some friends and looked forward to the first day of school.
As he prepared to go to bed, he smoked two blue pills. He didn't know what was in them. It was the second time he had used the drug.
The first time, he was with another person, "It put me to sleep," he said.
The night of Aug. 15, he smoked it alone.
"I remember putting music on. Nobody was home," he said. "I'm going to get ready for bed, I wasn't tired. ... I got some foil and I was burning the foil, then I put a pill in there, got a straw and just smoked it all."
He felt good. He decided to smoke a second pill.
"I don't even really remember smoking it, but I do remember closing my eyes and waking up in the hospital."
Fueled by social media
Melinda said she's no stranger to drugs and addiction. She grew up in Oklahoma and New Mexico and was raised by her grandparents because of her own parents' lifelong addictions, she said. She developed a keen understanding of the destruction they cause.
She had warned her children of her family's predisposition to drug addiction, she added, and never imagined her son would try opiates.
He's not the only one.
Melinda said she hears from friends and family almost weekly about other young people overdosing.
Rachel O'Connor, Santa Fe County's director of health and human services, said there had been a trend of teens overdosing in Southern New Mexico. "We are concerned about that happening in Santa Fe County because we know already that fentanyl is here."
A mental health crisis is exacerbating the problem, she added.
Provisional data from the New Mexico Department of Health shows 15 people under 20 in the state died in 2020 from fentanyl-involved overdoses. Though overdose deaths of teens under 18 are uncommon, spokesman David Morgan said, they have consistently accounted for 2 percent of all overdose deaths in the state each year from 2016 to 2020, even as the overall annual numbers have increased.
According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, New Mexico high school students were more likely to use opioids than the average teen in the U.S. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the survey also found young people in the LGBTQ community had a higher prevalence of opioid use.
Law enforcement officials who focus on drug trafficking in the area said they are concerned about fentanyl use among youth.
New Mexico State Police Lt. Scott McFaul, who has been leading the Region 3 Drug Task Force in Santa Fe, Taos, Rio Arriba and Bernalillo counties for the last seven years, said the digital age presents challenges when it comes to keeping up with dealers.
"We try to be smarter, to work smarter and stay on top of it, to find a way to take them down," McFaul said. "I really do believe that this younger generation — it's what they know, that's how they communicate. It's not word of mouth anymore. It's all social media, apps and platforms."
Apps such Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp now act as an "easy highway" to illegal substances.
McFaul said perhaps the biggest challenge for the task force is lack of knowledge among parents and lack of open communication with Northern New Mexico communities about the issue.
"Unfortunately, I just think that some parents are — I hate to say it, but they're embarrassed that this has happened to their child and that they missed it, or they weren't paying attention enough to see it and they weren't checking their phones," he said.
"We're doing everything we can to address it and stop it," he added, "and I think we need the parents to get involved and really pay attention, though, to what these young ones are doing and who they're talking to and how they're utilizing these social media platforms."
Addressing a rising problem
Melinda said her son not only had no idea what he was taking when he overdosed, he also didn't know anything about fentanyl and its dangers.
The teen also said he was unaware of the overdose rate associated with fentanyl.
Santa Fe County officials said the first step in addressing the rising problem is educating young people about fentanyl, the anti-overdose medication Narcan and drug testing strips.
"It's newer for youth in terms of possibly experimenting, and I think we really want to start tailoring our efforts to including education on what fentanyl is, what the effects are and how to spot it," said Chanelle Delgado, manager of the county's youth services administrative program.
Education is important for both teens and their parents, she added.
Lieving, the state harm reduction consultant, said he has conducted training on the use of Narcan, a brand name for the drug naloxone, following two teen overdoses in Socorro. August, he said, was his busiest month so far for distributing Narcan kits in New Mexico.
"When someone is having an opioid overdose and they're unconscious and not breathing, you give somebody naloxone or Narcan nasal spray, and the opioid receptors in their brain temporarily prefer the naloxone," Lieving said. "If you render aid and give naloxone prior to the person going into cardiac arrest, you are likely to rescue that person."
Lieving said he teaches people to provide a dose of Narcan every two minutes until the person regains consciousness or an emergency medical responder arrives at the scene. The Narcan acts like a fire extinguisher.
"It's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it," he said.
Since the recent incidents involving Santa Fe teens, his own teen daughter has asked to carry Narcan to school, he said.
Officials at Santa Fe Public Schools did not respond to questions on whether they plan to provide Narcan in schools or if teachers are trained to use it.
County officials said another key component to fighting the problem are fentanyl test strips, which can alert a drug user if a substance contains the opioid without their knowledge.
"If you're going to use, use smartly," said Elizabeth Peterson, manager of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, better known as LEAD.
Harm-reduction programs around the country have found that positive results on a fentanyl test strip often lead to changes in a drug user's behavior that reduce overdose risk, the state Legislative Finance Committee said in its report on the drug.
But there's a problem: Fentanyl test strips are illegal.
Under New Mexico law, the test strips are considered drug paraphernalia, and possession of them can result in a misdemeanor charge.
Phillip Fiuty, director of The Mountain Center's harm reduction program, said he hopes to see that change.
"We've had great success with the fentanyl test strips," he said. "We've been fighting to get the paraphernalia stuff changed here in the state, so that it's technically OK that we hand them out for the purposes of people checking their drugs."
O'Connor said the county hopes to tackle the emerging crisis in part by taking a holistic approach to supporting people struggling with drug addictions, including education, resources and mental health care.
Melinda and her son want to ensure other youth are able to avoid the horrific near-death experience they endured.
"I always wanted to get high. I kind of liked the feeling," the teen said. "But after all that's happened, I just don't want to mess with anything."
His wants to celebrate his 17th birthday, buy the Chevrolet Impala he's always wanted and continue studying history, his favorite subject.
His mother said, "I just want parents to know, the kids to know, that this is out there and this is not fun and games."
(c)2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)