Inside the opioid overdose epidemic in Roscoe


A fatal dose of fentanyl

“I want people to know that the majority of the people dying are not who they assume they are… You don't have to do "street drugs" to be in danger of an overdose… You don't have to be addicted to be at risk for an overdose… Most of all I want them to understand that fentanyl is a game changer!”

– Bev Pomering, Executive Director, Live R.E.A.L. Foundation, Roscoe, IL

In 2020, 25 people died of drug overdoses in Roscoe (less than 10 in Rockton). There were 135 overdose deaths in Winnebago County that year. Even more died in 2021. This is the second in a series of articles about the problem.

Many people think of drug abuse as a problem of the young. But of the 135 people in Winnebago County who died of drug overdoses in 2020, almost 15% were Baby Boomers over the age of 55. About 60% were born between 1985 and 1966. One-fifth were between 25 and 34. There were only four deaths among young people between 15 and 24. But there were more in 2021.

So is the drug epidemic waning in the next generation? In a sense, it might be. An article in U.S. News and World Report cites studies showing that drug use may be falling among high schoolers. In 2011, 40% of high school seniors said they had used drugs in the previous year. In 2021, that percentage had dropped to 32%.

But though drug use among high schoolers is declining, drug overdose deaths are increasing. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the rise of synthetic opioids has been as deadly for teens as for anyone else. It says, “Among adolescents, fentanyl-involved fatalities increased from 253 in 2019 to 680 in 2020 and to 884 in 2021.” These deaths were not caused by drugs like Xanax or Valium (13%) or meth (less than 10%) or cocaine (7%) or prescription opioids (less than 6%) or even heroin (2%). By 2021, fentanyl was causing 77% of those deaths. Included in and even labeled as other drugs, fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

Are young people in today’s northern Illinois worried about drugs? We asked several for their opinions. Though most agreed that drugs are a problem in our area, one young person told us the only drug problem he sees is “weed” (cannabis). Do they believe drugs in our community are dangerous? "Not necessarily,” one said, “but alcohol could turn dangerous." Most didn’t believe the drugs in our community are generally dangerous and they all believed that the risk of someone they know overdosing is low.

So don’t these young people believe fentanyl is a problem in our community? They responded, "Most likely not, fentanyl isn't a huge problem around here yet. But if laced things get into the area it could become a legitimate problem."

The catch is that laced drugs are coming into the area now. Several local people have recently died of overdoses - Hononegah graduates who were children in Roscoe and Rockton twenty years ago. Bev Pomering, who knew some of them, says most started their drug use as middle schoolers looking forward to Hononegah, or as high schoolers at Hononegah. That’s how her son Alex began, before his death.

Pomering says, “We need to understand that the drugs of today are not the drugs of yesteryear. They are manufactured to be exponentially more potent. Kids experimenting is a death sentence. Adults getting addicted from legal prescriptions is almost a guarantee that sooner or later they will be using street drugs, again a life sentence to destruction and death.”

When young people don’t see a serious drug problem, Pomering says, “I am guessing that the kids in high school don't consider all drugs as ‘doing drugs’.” They don’t count vaping, pot, pills, inhalants, and so on.

One problem is that casual drug users may not know they are ingesting potential fatal doses of fentanyl. Heroin is no longer the only product that fentanyl is laced into. According to the Final Report of the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, drug traffickers have changed their business strategy to please their American customers. And Americans feel comfortable with pills. Swallowing a pill also avoids “the social stigma of injection, snorting, and smoking.” The report says that fentanyl is driving overdose deaths in part because it is being manufactured as counterfeit tablets, including such brand names as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Xanax, and even Tylenol.

However, fentanyl is not the strongest synthetic opioid, and illegal laboratories are constantly developing new drugs. The synthetic opioid carfentanil, used in tranquilizer darts to put elephants to sleep, is about 20 to 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, 10,000 times as strong as morphine, and 4,000 times the potency of heroin. Still, drug dealers have sold it on American streets, even though, like nerve gas, it can be used as a military weapon.

For example, in the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, Russian military pumped a mist into the theater to subdue the Chechen terrorists inside. It subdued more than 700 hostages as well. Later, British scientists concluded the mist had contained the synthetic opioids carfentanil and remifentanil. Moscow rescue workers were told to bring the opioid overdose treatments naloxone and naltrexone to the scene. But they weren't told exactly what they would be treating, or that hundreds of patients had been exposed to high levels of extremely potent synthetic opioids. More than 125 of the hostages died of respiratory failure as a result of opioid overdose.

In June 2016, examining a Chinese shipment labeled as "toner cartridges" for HP LaserJet printers, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found one kilogram of carfentanil, or 50 million lethal doses of the drug, almost enough to wipe out the entire combined population of Canada and Illinois.

Pomering wants people to know, “Fentanyl will sooner or later kill you. It is a roulette wheel. You can think you are taking something completely safe and not know that it has been made on the black market with an unknown amount of fentanyl in it. You don't know how your body will react to fentanyl in your system. "

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