Nearly everyone knows of someone who has been affected by the ongoing opioid crisis. The effects of opioid addiction are widespread, from accidental addiction to accidental overdose and even death.
Debbie Melvin often looks back on a photo of her in a hospital bed holding her newborn while her 4-year-old daughter sits next to her. “She was so excited to have a little brother to play with,” Debbie said of her daughter, Tessa.
A single mom, Debbie raised Tessa and Noah on her own, and they developed a strong family bond. “We always looked out for each other,” Melvin said as she began to sob. “I tell my story in hopes to save other people from having to go through this,” she told The Florida Standard.
Fentanyl – lethal in trace amounts – has become a significant driver of the opioid crisis across the country. Nearly twenty-one people die each day in Florida from opioid abuse. Highly addictive and cheap to produce, criminal drug cartels use fentanyl to drive addiction and attract repeat customers.
As a synthetic alternative to natural opiates, fentanyl was developed for pain management to treat cancer and terminally ill patients. It was designed to be applied to the skin through a patch for slow absorption. According to the CDC, the drug is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin.
ADDED TO OTHER DRUGS
Extremely potent, powdered fentanyl is added to other drugs like methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin to make the drugs more addictive. Often pills are manufactured that resemble other prescription opioids. Unfortunately, most people don’t know that fentanyl is in the drugs when they buy them.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison. We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”
The crisis has become so severe that the DEA warned of “mass-overdose events,” affecting areas ranging from small towns to major cities such as Washington, D.C. “We are fighting this new crisis of fentanyl-related overdoses even among people who never intended to ingest an opioid,” said SAC Jarod Forget on DEA.gov. “The nature of this crisis has really shifted over recent years. All people in all communities are 100% at risk of coming in contact with this deadly drug.”
FENTANYL FLOW TO THE UNITED STATES
The flow of fentanyl has diversified since the beginning of the crisis in 2014. New transit routes and source countries have emerged as major trafficking nodes. According to a DEA intelligence report, the introduction of additional source countries into the global supply chain is complicating the efforts of law enforcers and policymakers.
China and Mexico are the primary source countries; however, India is now becoming a source of fentanyl powder and precursor chemicals. In addition, covert Mexican transnational criminal organizations have increased the production of fentanyl-laced tablets for trafficking across the U.S. border.
Unlike heroin and cocaine, produced from plant-based materials, fentanyl is a synthetic drug and does not have geographic source boundaries.
RAINBOW-COLORED PILLS POURING IN
Drug traffickers are targeting children, making multi-colored pills to resemble candy. On August 16, more than 250,000 rainbow-colored pills were seized at Arizona’s U.S. - Mexico border. Border patrol agents found more than 15,000 pills the day before, along with methamphetamine and heroin.
Candy-like fentanyl pills have been found in the U.S. since 2017, but Border Patrol agents are seeing massive amounts come across the border this year. Port Director Michael W. Humphries said he believes the pills are a way to target more children.
“My biggest concern and I think the biggest concern of DEA nationwide, is that the pills seem to be marketed specifically to a younger age group,” Jennifer Lofland, field intelligence manager for the Washington division, told Fox 5 D.C.
The DEA recommends that parents warn their children about the pills, especially since there is no way to tell how potent the drug might be, especially if mixed with fentanyl. “Some of the multi-colored pills that we’ve been testing in our labs recently, particularly a recent batch that appeared to be children’s chewable vitamins, were tested by our lab as containing both fentanyl and methamphetamine,” Lofland said.
CONNECTION TO HUMAN TRAFFICKING
Sex and labor trafficking both strongly intersect with the opioid epidemic. Human traffickers have increased their recruiting in drug rehabilitation facilities because of the vulnerability of those recovering from substance or opioid abuse. Often traffickers use opioids to coerce victims into labor and sex trafficking, using the drug as a control mechanism.
Sex trafficking is the transportation, recruitment, or harboring of a person for commercial sex acts. Commercial sex is any sex act induced through force, fraud, or coercion; or any sex act in which the person caused to perform the act is under the age of 18.
Labor trafficking is the transportation, recruitment, or harboring of a person for labor services through force, fraud, or coercion; or for the purpose of slavery, debt bondage, or involuntary servitude.
Opioid abuse is also a risk factor for human trafficking. Victims using drugs are at greater risk, and in situations where parents are using drugs or other substances, traffickers prey on their children or other members of the household.
Opioids are released naturally in our bodies and attach to brain receptors to help us block pain, slow our breathing, and create a sense of calm. When illicit drugs or prescription opioids are used, they mimic those natural effects in greater magnitude, flooding the body with dopamine. As a result, human trafficking survivors with a history of trauma are more vulnerable to cycles of abusive relationships, exploitation, and addiction.
FENTANYL FOUND IN MORE DEAD BODIES THAN ALCOHOL
In a statewide Medical Examiner’s report, fentanyl was found in more bodies of the deceased than alcohol. The data indicates that the majority of fentanyl was obtained illicitly. Fentanyl also caused the most drug-related deaths. Nearly twenty-one people die each day in Florida from opioid abuse, according to the report.
“We are in the middle of a national opioid crisis claiming twenty-one lives a day in our state. It is imperative that we bring opioid traffickers to justice and stop them from peddling deadly poison in our state,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody.
TWO LIVES LOST TOO SOON
Within a year and a half, Debbie Melvin lost both her children – Tessa, 20, and Noah, 16 – to overdoses of fentanyl. Tessa and Noah both took what they thought was a different drug, a tragedy told by so many others after fatal overdoses of the cheap, synthetic opiate.
Debbie’s children were not drug addicts but talented, bright kids from a good home who experimented with taking something they were unaware could kill them.
“I want parents to know that this drug could be anywhere. It could kill their kids – it could kill anyone,” Debbie said as she urged parents to talk to their kids about this deadly drug. “Often I cry so much that I run out of tears,” she said.
Tessa Melvin was found on her bedroom floor in February of 2020 after taking what she thought was an oxycontin pill from a friend she met on Instagram. Doctors pronounced her dead on arrival at the hospital. Tessa’s death certificate lists her cause of death as acute fentanyl intoxication.
Noah Melvin was found in his bedroom, unconscious, next to his girlfriend in May of 2021. Both were rushed to the hospital, where Noah’s girlfriend survived after being resuscitated, but Noah was pronounced dead about two hours later. The Sheriff’s department told Melvin that her son was given counterfeit Xanax pills that were pure fentanyl.
Noah was in his junior year in high school and on track to graduate in 2022. His mother said he planned to attend the University of Central Florida in the fall of 2022 to study film production.
No one has been arrested for Tessa or Noah’s death. Pills are often given to friends or traded through connections made on social media. As a result, it can be challenging for police to trace the origin.
Friends, family, and former teachers gathered at a memorial service for Noah last July. Debbie’s pastor, who officiated Tessa’s funeral the year before, comforted the family and said the day was “unimaginable.”
Debbie Melvin’s mother, Martha, held her hand tightly as they mourned the death of Noah. They both felt an overwhelming burden of grief as they remembered Tessa’s passing just one year prior.
WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION
Since February 2021, United States Customs and Border Protection seized more than 16,800 pounds of fentanyl at the southern border – enough to kill the entire U.S. population more than 11 times over. Between August 16 and 17, CBP officers at the Port of Nogales in Arizona seized more than 265,000 colored fentanyl pills.
In a letter to President Joe Biden, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody called on the President to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. Moody said that the classification would require the U.S. to create a more uniform response to the crisis, involving more federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Department of Defense.
“Border patrol has seized enough fentanyl to kill the entire American population many times over. With that in mind, and the recent mass overdose events in Hillsborough and Gadsden counties, I am demanding President Biden classify illicit fentanyl as a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” Moody wrote in a press release.
EXACERBATED BY THE BORDER CRISIS
Fentanyl is easy to produce and easy to transport. Mexican cartel traffickers often carry it in their backpacks when entering the U.S. illegally. On August 19 in Winter Haven, a multi-agency task force exposed an international drug ring smuggling enough fentanyl to kill 96,000 people. The suspects booked flights from California to Orlando, checked luggage containing the drugs, but never got on the flight. Instead, the receiver picked up the bags in Orlando, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
In June, Governor DeSantis unveiled Florida’s law-enforcement effort to combat immigration-related crimes of human smuggling and human trafficking, drug smuggling and drug trafficking, and transport of illegal weapons. The strike force, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, and local sheriffs work together to conduct operations throughout the state.
DoseOfRealityFL.com launched by Florida’s Attorney General, provides Floridians with access to vital information and resources to stop opioid abuse. The website features information for businesses, caregivers, educators, medical professionals, parents, students, and more.
ATLAS, a new online system for quickly getting help with addiction issues, is now accessible to help find programs, treatments, and healthcare services based on individual needs. Access the ATLAS online platform to locate treatment near you.
For immediate live assistance, Dial 2-1-1 for mental and behavioral health support.
Dial 9-8-8 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis.
You can also visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website for more resources or call the national hotline 1-800-662-HELP (4357).