Sac State conference draws hundreds of educators, public health experts to raise awareness of opioid abuse
October 13, 2022
Spencer from Roseville was 20 years old when he died of an opioid overdose last year. Aidan of Elk Grove suffered a fatal overdose earlier this year at age 30. Jade, 20, from Sacramento, died in 2021 of opioid poisoning.
Their faces, featured on poster boards next to the stage inside the University Union Ballroom on Tuesday, Oct. 11, are stark reminders of the toll opioid abuse has taken in the Sacramento region in recent years.
More than 250 educators and public health professionals from across the region and beyond gathered for the Opioid Awareness Summit at Sac State to learn more about abuse of opioids, a class of drugs prescribed for pain that increasingly are illegally manufactured and sold on the streets.
Janet Dumonchelle, Sac State’s pharmacist in charge, organized Sac State’s first small gathering around the issue in 2013, and the summits have grown year by year. The University works with law enforcement and health agencies to put on the event.
“At Sac State we are committed not just to our campus but to our community,” Dumonchelle said. “We don’t want to just sit on the sidelines. We want to help educate people and be part of the solution.”
Speakers at the daylong event presented data showing opioid overdoses and deaths increasing significantly, and discussed how to protect young people from falling victim to the drugs.
Street drugs sold as Percocet, Norco, and other pharmaceuticals can be laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Even a tiny amount of fentanyl can kill someone who ingests it, experts speaking at the summit said.
“This is really scary,” Sac State Police Chief Chet Madison said. “One pill can kill you.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Ed Mills said at least two Sac States students have died this year of fentanyl overdoses.
“Unfortunately, this crisis is getting worse,” he said.
Teenagers and young adults are disproportionately affected, conference speakers said. To attract youth, illegal drug manufacturers add color to pills so that they resemble candy or sidewalk chalk. Law enforcement personnel describe the pills as “rainbow fentanyl.”
Bob Beris, acting special agent in charge for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Northern California, said 107,623 people in the United States died of drug overdoses last year, a figure significantly driven by fentanyl. Most of the victims were ages 18 to 45, he said.
Sacramento County had 171 opioid-related deaths last year, a 44% increase from 2019, Sacramento County forensic psychologist Andrew Mendonsa said.
The county’s chief public health officer, Dr. Olivia Kasirye, emphasized the importance of educating parents and teachers about the dangers of purchasing drugs on the streets.
Schools, law enforcement, and others should have ready access to Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdoses, Kasirye said.
“We need to work hard. We need to have our guard up. We need to work together,” she said.
Dumonchelle said communication is important.
“Parents need to talk to their kids about the fact that young people are being targeted,” she said. “We need to have those hard conversations.”
Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said prosecutors are aggressively pursuing illegal opioid traffickers. He outlined his office’s recent case against Virgil Bordner, who sold the fentanyl-laced pills that killed Rocklin teen Zach Didier in December 2020.
Didier, who Gire described as a “good kid” who was “doing what a lot of kids do, experimenting,” consumed one of the pills at home two days after Christmas and died of fentanyl toxicity hours later. Using cell phone records, prosecutors found and arrested Bordner, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and in September was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
In addition to stepping up prosecutions of drug traffickers, Placer County launched a high-profile “One Pill Can Kill” campaign and is taking its message to school assemblies, as well as placing it on buses and billboards. Didier’s family and others who have lost loved ones to opioids are telling their stories publicly to educate parents and prevent future tragedies.
Overdoses and deaths, however, continue to soar.
“Hopefully, we will see a day when these numbers decline,” Gire told the gathering. “We are fighting at every level to get it done.”
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