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Dangers of fentanyl focus of Dallas panel by parents, politicians

Chance Nash came face-to-face with his mortality after an overdose.

His wake up call was three doses of Narcan, a life-saving opioid reversal medication.

“I always expected and wanted more out of life and thought I had found it in drugs,” the 18-year-old, who is now in recovery from a fentanyl addiction at Phoenix House, said at a roundtable Monday about the fentanyl crisis hosted by Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

Overdoses among youths — like Nash — have nearly doubled since the first year of the pandemic, said Children’s Health President and CEO Chris Durovich. The rise, Durovich said, is fueled in part by the growing presence of fentanyl and a confounding mental health crisis among children.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, claimed the lives of more than 1,600 Texans last year, Cornyn said at Children’s Health Specialty Center in Dallas.

“This is a call to arms,” the Republican senator said after about an hour of impassioned speeches from local leaders, advocates and mothers who have lost children to fentanyl poisonings.

“It’s time for us to make a commitment, not only here in Dallas, not only in Texas, but across this great country, that we are not gonna put up with this as the status quo anymore,” he said.

Fentanyl, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, was developed to manage pain during cancer treatment, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But is abused because of the powerful nature of the drug.

Cornyn introduced legislation to combat the epidemic, including the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program Reauthorization Act, which funds resources for substance abuse disorders treatments. The bill unanimously passed the U.S. Senate in late June and is pending in the House of Representatives.

David Atkinson, medical director of the Teen Recovery Program at Children’s Health, said fatal opioid overdoses among North Texas teens are on the rise, and many adolescents do not know they’re using fentanyl, which can be mixed with other drugs. A pencil tip-sized amount of fentanyl can be lethal, Cornyn said.

“This is a very different ball game than what we have been participating in before,” Atkinson said. “It’s really hard to overestimate the risk of fentanyl.”

Patricia Hammad said using the drug is like “playing Russian roulette.” Her 22-year-old daughter Cassandra Saldivar died after taking a pill laced with fentanyl. Her daughter turned to drugs to cope with anxiety.

Kathy Travis’ daughter Jessica Duke died 261 days ago as of Monday, after also taking drugs laced with the potent opioid.

“My daughter did not want to die, but this drug killed her,” Travis said.

Dallas police said fentanyl is commonly found in seemingly innocuous, counterfeit prescription pills. Since 2019, the department seized more than 15,000 grams of fentanyl and enforced punitive action against drug traffickers, Assistant Chief Michael Igo said during the roundtable.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson called the epidemic “a destructive force.” City officials have advocated for a mapping software to track where overdoses happen. The city has not yet committed to using the software.

“The drug itself isn’t the enemy — it’s the people who push it, the people who manufacture it, the people who sell it, people who bring into our cities,” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched the “One Pill Kills” campaign Monday. The governor announced new bills to be introduced this upcoming legislative session making Narcan more readily available and charging individuals with murder if they distribute the drug and it kills someone.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who also spoke Monday to the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Dallas, said the Justice Department is committed to combating the epidemic. He said a recent four-month law enforcement operation seized 36 million lethal doses of fentanyl from communities nationwide.

Cornyn called for stronger, sweeping action and education from living rooms to the White House.

“People of all ages need to be aware of this public health threat so that in our schools, our teachers and counselors can talk to their school children,” Cornyn said. “At home, parents can talk to their children and talk about the dangers of just taking one pill.”

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