The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The college checklist: Bedding, reading lamp and fentanyl test strips?

Pills laced with fentanyl. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

He graduated from high school last week (whew!) and now my firstborn is preparing for the move to college.

Dorm-size bedsheets. Shower tote. The perfect pillow.

“Make sure he’s got fentanyl test strips,” not one, but two friends told me. “Just in case.”

If we can get over the fear of another mass shooter unleashing his untreated fury onto a classroom of kids, there’s a far more efficient and common killer picking off America’s youths — fentanyl.

And we’re not only talking about the kind found in heroin and cocaine. Today’s lethal fentanyl doses are tucked into the staples of the college drug scene, the stuff that even the square kids may dabble in — weed and pills (even pain pills and study pills).

“Fentanyl is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate,” the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top enforcer, Anne Milgram, said in an April letter to law-enforcement agencies. “Drug traffickers are driving addiction, and increasing their profits, by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl, until it’s too late.”

This was sent after mass overdoses occurred in at least seven American cities this spring. There were at least 58 overdoses and 29 deaths — 10 of them in D.C. — when bad batches were also dropped in Florida, Texas, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska neighborhoods.

Ten opioid overdoses in a matter of hours

Too many dealers think adding a dash of fentanyl to their schwag weed might make their product more addictive, and therefore more popular. The problem with that, of course, is that your average slinger isn’t a scientist. And the DEA says a dose of fentanyl that weighs just two milligrams — as much as a mosquito — is enough to kill.

Try trusting the corner plug known as Mad Hatter to get those measurements right.

The numbers in the adolescent population are horrifying. There were 518 overdoses among kids ages 14 to 18 in 2010, a level that held fairly steady for a decade. It jumped to 945 in 2020 and 1,146 last year, according to a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This is happening while drug use among teens has actually decreased slightly. It’s just a deadlier game now.

And so we have fentanyl test strips, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said are the best way to stay safe — short of abstinence.

That sends us straight into the murky, moral morass. By tucking test strips into his college goody basket, are we simply giving drugs a big green light?

It’s the world of free condoms and needle exchange programs. If you’re going to engage in risky behavior, at least be as safe as possible about it. A leap of faith that makes everyone queasy, even as the world around us embraces harm reduction and policymakers increasingly view drug use as a public health issue.

Slowly, jurisdictions are declassifying the test strips as “drug paraphernalia” so that more folks will be comfortable giving and having them.

Because letting go of the naive assumption that “MY kids wouldn’t do that” (trust me, they’ve been in my house and my car and I read their texts with my kids — they’re doing it) is especially important when it comes to the demon spawn that is fentanyl.

It’s showing up in pot and in fake pills being sold on Snapchat. It’s in cities and suburbs, on campuses and in clubs.

That’s how Abdallah Amer Ali, 21, sold a lethal pill to a 16-year-old in Harrisonburg, Va., according to the Department of Justice.

“With overdose deaths on a rampant rise across the country, we often focus on numbers, but today’s announcement is an important reminder that these numbers are much more than that — these are our children, loved ones, and our friends,” Special Agent in Charge Jarod Forget said in the announcement of Ali’s guilty plea on Monday.

“Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are a huge problem, affecting every culture, race, and age in our local communities,” Forget said. “It only takes one pill to kill.”

In April, two teens in Prince William County — 14 and 15 years old — died after taking fake Percocets marketed as Perc30s and tainted with fentanyl, according to police.

In February, a 16-year-old high school student in Connecticut overdosed on marijuana that contained traces of fentanyl. Police departments across the United States have issued warnings this year about fentanyl in local weed supplies.

And in January, 16-year-old Makayla Cherie Cox, a popular cheerleader and gymnast at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, died after taking a blue pill that had a trace of fentanyl.

Just last month, two students at Ohio State University died after taking counterfeit Adderall pills laced with fentanyl, right around finals.

This is the one that scares me the most. When he was in middle school, my son was prescribed Adderall by a doctor treating him for ADHD. He hated how it made him feel, and he quit it before he finished the bottle. But in those few weeks, his focused, intense self made perfect grades and performed ferociously on the ice when he played defense.

We’ll talk about drugs and we’ll encourage abstinence. But my husband and I both went to college; we’re not clueless. Our children are a generation grossly failed by adults who grew up without the worry that their classrooms, grocery stores, concerts or movie theaters would become slaughterhouses and that the joint being passed around the college party isn’t laced with a synthetic substance that could kill them.

So I’m going to buy the test strips and tuck them in with a fresh pack of his favorite socks, in the hope that his generation will do better for the future than ours did for his.