With classes resuming at colleges and universities, the Drug Enforcement Administration is imploring students and administrators to be wary of counterfeit pills that may contain fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can be deadly in even small amounts.
According to a survey by the DEA, about 20% of college students self reported misusing prescription drugs.
Chicago DEA spokesman Luis Agostini said prescription drug abuse puts students at risk of taking counterfeit pills with fentanyl, which is killing thousands of Americans every month.
“We’ve been hearing from parents, unfortunately, on a more frequent basis. They’ve been sharing … the heartbreaking stories about their children, their teens or young adults … and they make that decision to consume that pill or consume that drug, never having used drugs in their life. And unfortunately, it did have a fatal amount of another narcotic such as fentanyl or heroin,” Agostini said.
Last September, the DEA issued a public safety alert warning of a “sharp increase in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and meth.”
Agostini has been traveling around to Chicago area campuses to pass out literature and spread the word of the dangers of fentanyl and potentially fake pills.
“What DEA is primarily focused on is the trafficking of fentanyl in its powder and its fake pill form. So we’re talking about fake pills that are designed to look like oxy, like Adderall and other legitimate prescribed pharmaceutical pills,” Agostini said. “These are pills that are being manufactured by cartels in Mexico at an industrial scale, but without any quality control.”
It was likely a counterfeit pill that killed Peter Jeske last year, a native of west suburban Glen Ellyn, who died of fentanyl poisoning while he was away at college at Indiana University.
Dean Jeske believes his son had likely taken something he believed to be a study drug like Adderall, or perhaps a prescription medication like Xanax. But whatever he thought he was taking, Peter ended up taking a pill that contained a small amount of fentanyl.
That small amount was enough to kill him, said Jeske, who remembers his son as bright, curious and athletic.
“The thing I loved about Peter the most was he was very funny. He had a great sense of humor, very clever, very witty. He had a sort of an innate intellectual curiosity about things,” Jeske said. “He was my kid who always asked me a lot of questions and always had a lot of ideas about things. He was just a really neat, interesting kid.”
He said the sudden loss of his youngest son as a result of something college students do every day has been “absolutely devastating.”
“He was the bright shining light of our family … Every single day, you see something or you hear something that reminds you of him,” Jeske said. “There’s at least a portion of every day where you just get this pit in your stomach. Realizing that, you know, you’re never going to see him again, or talk to him again, or hear him tell a story or tell a joke. It’s just demolished our family.”
Now, Jeske is making it his mission to educate other young people about the dangers lurking in potentially counterfeit pills. He’s been speaking at high schools, talking with parents and school administrators.
He said after learning that it was fentanyl-poisoning that killed his son, he started researching the issue, and began to see a “gap” in otherwise robust drug-abuse education.
“People weren’t talking about this particular thing, this issue with fake pills and fentanyl and … young people like my son, Peter, who weren’t enough substance abusers historically, you can do this one time and end up dead,” Jeske said. “And the more I learned about it, and the more I started to talk with friends about it, when I would describe this issue to people, they just looked at me like, they couldn’t believe it, they had no idea … And it just felt to me like it wasn’t being talked about enough.”
While Jeske focuses on education, Terry Almanza has made it her mission to get punishment for those selling deadly pills.
Almanza’s 18-year-old daughter Sydney Schergen died suddenly in 2015 after taking ecstasy in Chicago.
“She was kind, beautiful, loving, athletic, artistic, loved music, loved being with family, friends. Just an amazing young girl,” Almanza said,
Almanza, a former Chicago police officer, is the founder of the Drug Induced Homicide Foundation, which advocates for drug dealers to be prosecuted for selling drugs that result in a death.
“We’ve got to recognize that these are homicides and treat them like the homicides that they are, because I do believe that in doing so we are saving lives,” Almanza said. “We are reducing the number of these deaths and sending a message to these dealers that if you’re out there peddling this poison, you’re going to prison.”
Almanza said it is “sickening” and “heartbreaking” to her that the crisis has only gotten worse since her daughter’s death.
“This has been my message since 2015, when there were 675 opioid related deaths in Cook County. And in 2021, there were 1926 opioid related deaths in Cook County,” Almanza said.
She believes part of the problem is that police and prosecutors are still reluctant to charge drug dealers with homicides.
However Dr. Maria Rahmandar said focusing on criminal punishment can make it less likely that people who witness an overdose will call for help. She said “as much as we can think of substance use as a health issue and not a moral issue, the more people will be able to access help.”
Rahmandar is the medical director of the substance use and prevention program at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University.
“I am definitely seeing an increase in people using products that have fentanyl in them. Some unintentionally and some intentionally,” Rahmandar said.
She said she will have patients do a drug screen and they are shocked to see fentanyl come up in their blood.
“That is incredibly concerning. Knowing how potent fentanyl is and how deadly it can be, Rahmandar said. “I mean, that is what is killing people at, you know, ridiculous rates.”
Rahmandar said in her work, and in public messaging in general, it’s important to strike the right balance between warning about the very real dangers of fentanyl without fear mongering.
“Most teens who use substances don’t end up going on to have a problem with them,” Rahmandar said. “But, I mean, the dangers of fentanyl are so real and so everywhere. They’re in so much supply now, that this really is something that I hope that teens aren’t feeling invincible about it.”