Cameron was prescribed oxycodone for a football injury when he was just 14. Cameron, whose last name is being withheld, became addicted, but by age 26, he was supported by a team of therapists in battling that addiction.
“But in March of 2018, he became anxious because I was away due to my mom’s death. He reached out to somebody he knew to sell him Oxycontin,” said his mother, Fiona Firine, who now runs a nonprofit called For Cameron, to battle the stigma of addiction.
“That oxycontin turned out to be unadulterated fentanyl, pressed into a pill that looked like OxyContin. It was 11,000 micrograms of fentanyl, 9,000 micrograms over the absolute death level. He died instantly in his bedroom,” Firine said.
Unfortunately, tragedies like these are becoming far too common, as the presence of fentanyl increases in Connecticut and especially in counterfeit pills. According to a Connecticut Department of Public Health data dashboard created by epidemiologist Heather Clinton, fentanyl and its alterations, or analogs, was involved in 84% of the 1,369 lethal drug overdoses in Connecticut in 2020. In 2021, it was involved in 82% of the 1,504 lethal drug overdoses. The chart also indicated that fentanyl usually wasn’t the only drug being taken, being combined with other drugs like cocaine, alcohol and benzodiazepines.
Fentanyl, which is 100x stronger than morphine, can kill at a much smaller dose than heroin can, according to the Drug and Enforcement Administration.
On Sept. 27, 2021, the DEA issued a health alert to the general public titled, “Sharp Increase in Fake Prescription Pills Containing Fentanyl and Meth,” concerning a “sharp increase in fake prescription pills.” The agency did this because it had captured a staggering amount of counterfeit pills with lethal doses of fentanyl and meth that could kill unsuspecting drug users.
“More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year, which is more than the last two years combined. The number of DEA-seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430% since 2019, a staggering increase,” according to information in the 2021 alert. “DEA laboratory testing further reveals that today, two out of every five pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.”
The alert also warns that fentanyl-laced pills can be made to look like pain reliever opioids like oxycodone, which was the drug that Cameron took.
The danger here is that users may not know that they are taking a lethal amount of fentanyl. Robert Lawlor, a drug intelligence officer for the Connecticut Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that drug trafficking organizations are having trouble figuring out how to properly mix fentanyl into bags and pills.
“You go out on the street and buy five bags. One pill will have a very little amount of fentanyl or some other active substance. Pill two will have, you know, just a little bit more. Pill three will have a little bit more than that. Pill four will have a pretty good amount until pill five which will just be loaded with fentanyl or the active substance,” Lawlor said.
While the idea of not knowing whether the next pill may be the last is terrifying, several steps can be taken to prevent overdoses. Maria Coutant-Skinner, the CEO of McCall Behavioral Health Center in Torrington advised using fentanyl test strips and carrying naloxone, a medication that quickly reverses opioid overdoses.
“We encourage a lot of harm reduction efforts around that, like making sure to normalize that Narcan should be in everybody’s first aid kit. We should all have it,” Coutant-Skinner said. “There was a confirmed case of fentanyl in marijuana in Plymouth and it did start to help have a conversation around normalizing Narcan.”
Harm reduction efforts like syringe exchange sites and proper sexual education have been proven to work, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Coutant-Skinner stressed the importance of addressing addiction at its core.
“People think of prevention as being specific to a drug. Effective prevention looks very different from that. It’s actually getting at what the root drivers of addiction really are. And those are things like unresolved trauma, unresolved pain, unresolved and unaddressed mental health issues,” Coutant-Skinner said.
Additionally, Firine, Coutant-Skinner and Lawlor agreed on there being one major barrier for people getting help for addiction: stigma. Firine and by extension, For Cameron, fights stigma through education, like speaking at National Overdose Awareness Day events and attending meetings as part of the New Haven Harm Reduction Taskforce.
A lot of her work is through pushing drug reform legislation, such as getting fentanyl classified as a narcotic or by encouraging the formation of a “Office of Drug Policy.” She continues this work in Cameron’s name, hoping to help others who may still have a chance. Her daughter switched her major to addiction studies and psychology at Gateway Community College “to carry forward what he had been unable to do.” Cameron’s major was Addiction Studies before he died.
“Cameron died four years ago this week. I thought it would always be a sad month, but [maybe it would] get a little easier over time. Instead, it’s just the opposite. Each March is more difficult than the one before,” Firine wrote in an email. “In your mind you relive each day, leading up to the awful day and we just miss him more and more. He was a gem.”
This is an article that was originally written in 2022, but was not published at the time of writing.