On a cold morning last spring, emergency dispatchers west of Fort Worth fielded the kind of 911 call that’s become alarmingly familiar of late: A 23-year-old had been found lying on his bed, unresponsive, with foam dribbling from his mouth.
For 40 minutes, first responders labored to save him, to no avail. The kid was gone.
His friends told officers they believed he had taken Percocet, an opiate commonly prescribed for acute pain. His autopsy revealed something far worse: fentanyl, a terrifying drug up to 150 times more potent than oxycodone.
As the scene of this young man’s death illustrated, fentanyl overdose deaths are not peaceful, and the aftermath is not pretty. And yet they’ve become common in north Texas and around the nation.
About 70,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses in 2021, according to the National Institutes of Health. Around 30% of the deceased were younger than 35 years old. In recent years, fentanyl has claimed the lives of more young adults and children than gunshots and car accidents combined.
Since becoming United States attorney for the Northern District of Texas — the top federal law enforcement officer for a district that spans 100 north Texas counties and includes more than 8 million residents — I’ve committed to partnering with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, in their heroic efforts to stop the flow of fentanyl-laced pills into north Texas. As a result of their hard work, my prosecutors have been able to charge a number of individuals with fentanyl crimes.
Notably, we recently indicted several traffickers tied to as many as 10 juvenile overdoses in the Carrollton Farmers Branch School District.
But alone, law enforcement’s best efforts are not enough. We need the public’s help to ensure that all community members— particularly our young people — understands the high risk of death they face anytime they consume any piece of any pill that they did not receive from a doctor or pharmacy.
Fentanyl is a shape-shifting drug rarely sold under its own name. Instead, traffickers manufacture fake pills that look identical to common prescription painkillers and other drugs, lace them with illicitly produced fentanyl and falsely market them as Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, Adderall or Xanax. (Traffickers even cut fentanyl into substances they sell as heroin or cocaine.)
These traffickers choose fentanyl over other drugs because it’s cheap to manufacture, easy to transport, and incredibly addictive. Most dealers know that just 2 milligrams of fentanyl — less than a pencil tip’s worth — can immediately kill anyone who swallows it or snorts it. They just don’t care.
The overdose victim in the Abilene case, who probably thought he was buying prescription Percocet that had been diverted from a pharmacy, connected with his dealer on Facebook. The pair exchanged Facebook messages just a few hours before he died.
In fact, most traffickers — and the street-level dealers they use as middlemen — advertise on social media, often to kids. They don’t explain the dangers associated with fentanyl. But we can.
Parents, coaches, mentors, teachers, counselors, family and friends need to have frank conversations with kids about the dangers of fentanyl. Of course, we must prioritize having these discussions face-to-face with children in our homes and communities. But one of the most direct ways to convey the information to north Texas children and their families is through schools.
My office is here to help. In the coming months, our staff will launch webinars for school personnel throughout the Northern District of Texas. These webinars will cover a variety of topics, from how to educate children on the risk of fentanyl to how to spot indicators of possible violence.
These informational sessions will be accompanied by posters, flyers, videos and other information the schools can distribute directly to their students and families and over all their social media platforms, in the predominant languages spoken in those schools.
So, what happened to the drug trafficker who sold the 23-year-old that fatal pill? He was charged with distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. He pleaded guilty last month and awaits sentencing. I hope his victim’s death will help galvanize our communities into action.
Leigha Simonton is the United States attorney for the Northern District of Texas.