Fentanyl is the leading cause of a surge in overdose deaths in Alabama and across the nation. On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville and other experts joined AL.com to talk about the fentanyl crisis in Alabama and what can be done to handle it.
Tuberville was joined by an expert panel featuring Sheriff Jay Jones of the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, who was the 2022 President of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association; Dr. Shereda Finch, executive director of the Council on Substance Abuse; and UAB phsycican and Heersink School of Medicine faculty member Dr. Stefan Kertesz. AL.com’s Ivana Hrynkiw moderated the event.
More than 56,000 people in the United States died from overdoses of synthetic opioids like fentanyl in 2020, according to the CDC, an increase of 18-fold over 2013. In Alabama, overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased from 453 in 2020 to 1,069 in 2021, according to the Alabama 2023 Drug Threat Assessment.
The drug is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the CDC. Two milligrams of fentanyl, equivalent to a few grains of salt, is potentially a lethal dose.
Tuberville and all experts agreed Wednesday that education is the most important tool to combat the crisis.
“This is amazing that we are even having to talk about this like we’re having to talk about it. But, you know, it’s good that we got experts, you know, taking time here to put a light on this because I tell you, it’s, it’s getting worse,” the senator said.
“But our kids are dying right and left. You know, this week is National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, and the facts, you know, are a scary picture… just two milligrams of fentanyl, roughly the weight of mosquito, is considered a lethal dose,” Tuberville said. “Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it has stopped more than 900 pounds I think of fentanyl from entering our country. More than 150 Americans are dying every day, and mostly our kids.”
In Alabama, steps are being taken to try and combat the crisis. A bill to impose mandatory prison times for distributing fentanyl was near the top of the agenda for Alabama lawmakers when they resumed their regular session Tuesday.
Officials from Alabama’s largest statewide health organizationslast week launched an “Odds are Alabama” campaign to spread the word about the danger posed by fentanyl, trying to direct people to places they can get help with addiction and access resources like naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, and testing strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs.
The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Jefferson County Health Department offer free naloxone and training in how to use it. During the town hall, Jones said his officers carry naloxone.
“Years ago, we didn’t carry any particular medical substance that would assist in circumstances with drugs,” said the sheriff. “But now we find ourselves issuing naloxone to all of our on-duty personnel. And unfortunately, it’s a situation where they’ve had to use it multiple times, and there’s no doubt in my mind that several lives have been saved…”
Kertesz said he thinks public places should have naloxone on hand for emergencies, much like gyms have defibrillators, adding that the substance doesn’t pose a threat to anyone who could get their hands on it.
Tuberville said his experience working as a coach and around teenagers has made him think about the fentanyl crisis in a different way. “The problem that we’re having with this, and I’ll tell you from my previous experience being a coach and around kids for 40 years, is these kids think they’re invincible. You can talk to then, you can educate them, but the problem is they get in certain situations and number one, they don’t think before they do something and they do something and it’s too late.”
Finch said her team is working in high school classes and on college campuses to get young people involved and educated about drugs and mental health. “One of the benefits of our programs is we’re able to create environments that children and youth are able to talk about these issues and not only just be talked to, but be part of the solution,” she added.
“Some of the things that we need to solve really will involve the voice of our youth and our young adults on our college campuses.”