Families of those killed by fentanyl gather at DEA as US undergoes deadliest overdose crisis

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Attorney General Merrick Garland accompanied by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram, looks at photographs of people who had died from drugs during the Second Annual Family Summit on Fentanyl at DEA Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – Andrea Thomas had never heard of fentanyl when her daughter died after taking half of a pill she thought was prescription medication. Five years later, she's among hundreds of thousands of families who have lost a loved one as the U.S. undergoes the deadliest overdose crisis in its history.

About 150 people from families who have lost a loved one to fentanyl poisoning gathered Tuesday at the headquarters of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Thomas was heartened a man was convicted of selling the pill to her daughter Ashley Romero after a DEA investigation, but says there's more the federal government can do — especially when it comes to education.

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“When you lose a child, it's an unnatural order. There is a forever grief that doesn’t go away,” she said. “We’re not going to keep this out, it’s flooding our country. We need education in schools ... prevention is going to be our strongest asset."

In a speech at the Family Summit on Fentanyl, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that the Justice Department is sending out some $345 million in federal funding over the next year, including money to support mentoring for at-risk young people and increase access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

“We know that fentanyl is a nearly invisible poison, and that many people who take fentanyl have no idea they are taking it,” Garland said. “We know that no one -- no one person, and no one family -- can defeat this epidemic alone. We need each other."

He also pointed to a series of Justice Department criminal cases working their way through courts across the country, from Missouri to Rhode Island to New York City, where a third person was charged Monday in the death of a 1-year-old apparently exposed to fentanyl at day care.

The Justice Department has also charged 23 alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel and earlier this month extradited leader Ovidio Guzman Lopez. He has pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering charges and said in a joint letter with his brothers that they are “scapegoats.”

The DEA, meanwhile, has focused on the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels as driving most of the fentanyl flooding into the U.S. from Mexico, Administrator Anne Milgram said.

“Fentanyl has changed everything," she said. “We are facing and confronting a threat that is ever growing. It’s never been more deadly or dangerous.”

A synthetic opioid that’s considered exponentially more addictive than heroin, fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49. A tiny amount, 2 milligrams, ingested into the body can be fatal.

It costs less than a penny to buy the chemicals needed to make a lethal dose of fentanyl, making its potential availability “virtually limitless,” she said.

The drug is frequently mixed into the supplies of other drugs or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, like oxycodone. Some people never know they are taking it.

More than 100,000 deaths a year have been linked to drug overdoses since 2020 in the U.S., about two-thirds of those are related to fentanyl. The death toll is more than 10 times as many drug deaths as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic.

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