The national fentanyl epidemic is poisoning our community

Knowledge is an antidote

February 10, 2023

Westfield is experiencing a tragedy. Through unfortunate circumstances, the dark tentacles of a national epidemic, already grasping our community, have squeezed too tight, waking our town to its monstrous dilemma.

Jan. 1 2023: WHS alumnus, Koryn Kraemer, was charged with assault in the second degree after Kraemer, under the influence of “alcohol, cannabis and fentanyl,” approached a 78-year-old man on a train platform in Portland, Oregon and “chewed off the victim’s ear and some skin in the area of the victim’s ear and face,” according to the Multnomah County, OR district attorney’s website. 

Feb. 1 2023: Former middle school art teacher at RIS, Frank Thompson, appeared in court to address charges for the possession of a controlled dangerous substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and endangering the welfare of children. The charges were in response to a fentanyl overdose occurring in November, 2022 when a student found Thompson unconscious in his classroom. 

The fentanyl epidemic has rooted its tendrils in Westfield. The number of drug overdoses, both publicly and privately, are not only occurring, but increasing. Now, more than ever, every member of our community must join the fight by educating themselves and others about the epidemic, how it is impacting our community and how they can contribute to an adequate response. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of these events would be the failure to sufficiently respond.

An authentic lethal dose of fentanyl is displayed on the point of a number 2 pencil for size reference (Photo courtesy of flickr)

So, what is fentanyl? Responsible for more than 150 deaths per day, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, fentanyl is both legal and illegal, as it is a “painkiller” prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain, especially after surgery, and also produced and sold illegally by drug dealers who lace it into other drugs, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Westfield Police Officer and WHS Student Resource Officer Nick Calello explained this further. “A lot of [opioid misuse] starts with prescription drugs from a small surgery. People get hooked and then they go to the street for heroin and unfortunately heroin is often laced with fentanyl.”

Calello also explained that high schoolers may come into contact with fentanyl unintentionally. “Now, they’re starting to find marijuana laced with fentanyl,” said Calello. “Marijuana is known as a high school drug that kids experiment with.”

Why is fentanyl laced into drugs? Fentanyl’s potency significantly increases the addictiveness of drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin, making the consumer more likely to purchase the drug again, according to NIDA. Beyond this, fentanyl is cheaply produced and practically undetectable, increasing the ease at which it is laced into drugs. 

The scary part is that you don’t know if there’s fentanyl,” said Calello. “There’s no way of knowing. It’s literally the size of a grain of salt. A grain of salt is a lethal dose.”

An anonymous WHS senior and marijuana user’s experiences smoking marijuana confirm fentanyl’s undetectability. They stated, “If you smoke laced [marijuana] you don’t even know that it’s laced until much later…I did smoke once and I think it was laced. I was sick; I was puking; it was like really bad food poisoning. I didn’t remember anything after I smoked.” 

What is the epidemic? The fentanyl epidemic refers to three distinct, but “co-occurring epidemics marked by different types of opioids and diverse geographical, temporal and sociodemographic patterns,” according to a study from Jama Network, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association. The study also reports that the current wave, which began in 2013, “is associated with illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids,” or fentanyl illegally purchased on the streets. 

Although valiant efforts have been made to battle the epidemic, its constant evolutions and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused much devastation, reversing progress.

It’s fantastic that we have [Narcan] and that we’re able to deploy it. But it’s not a solution to the opioid drug problem. These people, they need help.

— Westfield Police Chief Christopher Battiloro

Dr. Christopher Freer, the senior vice president of emergency and hospital medicine at RWJ Barnabas Hospital, illustrated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were making some progress, but since the pandemic [the number of deaths have] almost doubled. So, there’s over 100,000 people a year dying from the opioid crisis and overdoses.”

In general, the pandemic has increased the number of individuals struggling with substance use disorders. The Director of Development and Alumni Services at Maryville Addiction Treatment Center in Williamstown, NJ, Sheri Sabot, said, “In general, as you’ve probably deduced, we have had increased numbers of people needing treatment due to increased depression, increased anxiety and using substance use as a way of coping.”

Kim M., who is recovering from a substance use disorder, described how hard the pandemic has been for her. She said, “I was sober for the first time in my life 5 years ago for the first time since I was 12…During the pandemic, Narcotics Anonymous was closed so I ended up relapsing and am in recovery once again.” 

No community is exempt from the devastation of this crisis, and as recent events have painfully demonstrated, certainly not Westfield. 

Westfield Chief of Police Christopher Battiloro said, “A lot of people think Westfield [is] kind of a picturesque town and don’t think these types of things happen here. But they do, and they do with a concerning degree of frequency.” 

In fact, according to Battiloro, there were 14 occasions during 2022 in which the Westfield Police Department administered Narcan, a treatment for suspected opioid overdose. 

WHS Health Teacher Susan Kolesar further illustrated the pain that opioid abuse has caused in Westfield. She explained, “We have lost alumni to opioid overdoses and they leave behind family members who still reside here to grieve. We have also had members of our school community and alumni who have had their lives forever altered by the effects of drugs.”

Evidently, the situation needed to be addressed. Thus, many members of the Westfield and surrounding communities have been battling the epidemic. 

For example, since 2010, Westfield police officers have been carrying Narcan, which has been instrumental in saving lives, according to Battiloro. 

In addition to student resource officers, Westfield Superintendent of Public Schools Dr. Raymond Gonzalez confirmed that in Westfield Public Schools, “Every nurse’s office has Narcan, even in the elementary schools.” WHS Nurse Robert Ripper added that WHS has had Narcan for the last several years. 

While Narcan is essential in saving the lives of many, it is not a solution. Battiloro emphasized, “It’s fantastic that we have [Narcan] and that we’re able to deploy it. But, it’s not a solution to the opioid drug problem. These people, they need help.” Battiloro added that it is “not uncommon” for his department to need to revive people twice using Narcan. And, as Ripper explained, “Some of the things [drug makers] are putting in won’t be able to be reversed by Narcan.”

Support through rehabilitation and medical treatment plays a vital role helping those struggling with substance use disorder. Dr. Freer emphasized this point. “One of the biggest things that people have to look at when they see someone who’s addicted to an opioid is that it is a disease, just like diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Thus, the Westfield Police Department offers aid in accessing rehabilitation services by providing those arrested for drug possession the opportunity to receive immediate help through programs such as Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365. 

Furthermore, in order to educate WHS students about how they can receive help, and in hopes to prevent more people from becoming affected, Kolesar said she has created lessons to teach her students about opioid abuse. Components of her lessons include, “reading about opioids, including rainbow fentanyl, learning about the signs and symptoms of overdose, how to use and obtain Narcan and resources for support for users and their families.” 

Additionally, in light of recent events, Dr. Gonzalez said that the Department of Education has been reassessing their systems to address and prevent substance misuse. 

“We are looking at ways that we can augment our curricular offerings, and our counseling and support services, to make sure we are adapting and adjusting as necessary to meet the needs of our students,” Dr. Gonzalez explained.

WHS Principal Mary Asfendis also wrote in a newsletter on Jan. 31, “All WHS students, grades 9-12, are receiving a lesson on the dangers of fentanyl in their health classes this year.”

Perhaps one of the most important lessons, and one that many interviewees emphasized, was the power of asking for help. Kim M. said, “Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help. Walk into a meeting and you can get the support you need and only be greeted with compassion. I have seen individuals young and old attend Narcotics Anonymous. I see walking into a meeting as a sign of strength in one’s personal journey to recovery rather than struggling with addiction alone and making poor decisions as a result.” 

The monstrous grip of opioid substance abuse has tightened, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Although the tunnel’s opening is miles away, every resident’s efforts to educate themselves and contribute to the work of many already fighting so hard brings light to the situation. The stakes are high. These are our neighbors. Our loved ones. Ourselves. 

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Individuals looking to learn more about substance use disorder or seek help should consider contacting 2-1-1 or Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365. Resources were provided to Hi’s Eye by The Westfield Police Department and Maryville Treatment Center.  

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