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The Rise of Fentanyl

Updated: Mar 13

Michelle Leopold first contacted Youth Transforming Justice (YTJ) as a concerned mother back in 2016 after she heard YTJ Executive Director Don Carney speak on a panel at her son Trevor’s high school. She thought the program would be a way for her son to get support for a growing substance abuse problem. She saw his cannabis use increasingly impacting his life negatively and asked Don if her son could attend YTJ’s Peer Solutions program despite not having been referred. The family found YTJ’s Substance Safety Skills training portion of the program to be a  “life-changing Saturday.” “Trevor dutifully attended the week of substance education programs and youth court, which was impactful, educational, and gave us hope,” Leopold continued. Tragically, it was not enough and Trevor passed away a couple of years later during his first year in college after unknowingly taking just one pill laced with fentanyl.


The Leopold family maintained a connection with YTJ for years following, and Leopold’s younger son, Parker, would also be referred to the program by his school for cannabis use. After experiencing both of her sons going through YTJ, she and her younger son Parker decided to become speakers for YTJ’s quarterly Substance Safety Skills training, hoping their experience could help other families struggling with teen substance use. Michelle and Parker provide important lived experience testimony on the increased danger of high-potency marijuana as well as the fentanyl crisis that has severely impacted swathes of teens in Marin County and the nation as a whole.  


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid whose primary use is as a pharmaceutical-grade drug for patients suffering severe levels of pain, and the drug is fifty to one hundred times stronger than morphine. Similar to oxycodone and morphine, fentanyl began being used recreationally due to its euphoric side effects. Without the guidance of medical professionals, fentanyl can put users at risk of fainting, seizures, and death. It has also been abused by illegal drug manufacturers who add it to everything from counterfeit Xanax to heroin and cocaine, resulting in individuals of all ages taking it unknowingly. Drugs laced or replaced with fentanyl have caused overdose deaths to skyrocket over the last few years, and the circulation of laced counterfeit pills is only increasing. “When Trevor died, 1 in 4 pills confiscated by DEA agents contained a lethal amount of fentanyl; odds of dying from one line or one pill in 2019 were greater than if playing Russian Roulette with a gun and one bullet. The DEA’s number is now 6 in 10 pills are lethal.” Leopold said. 


Seeing the devastating impact fentanyl has had on their peers, many young people in Marin have taken initiative to raise awareness about the lethality of the drugs. Tamalpais Unified High School District students demanded an update in the Life Skills class, one required for all ninth graders in the district, to include conversations about the lethality from a small dose of fentanyl in their curriculum. Stanford’s Education Department was tasked with updating TUHSD’s drug curriculum, and it is currently awaiting approval for release to the Marin County Office of Education. 


YTJ’s interns have also been working with a local program called OD Free Marin, a coalition of county and community partners striving toward the goal of reducing overdoses in the county with a focus on fentanyl. Abigail Diaz is a YTJ intern and a senior at San Francisco State University. She has helped OD Free Marin reach a younger audience to inform them about fentanyl through gathering research and spreading it on social media platforms. Diaz has seen the impacts of fentanyl in the Bay Area and knows the importance of protecting young people. “When this impacts youth, we must do something about it, to see a change, to reduce the number of fentanyl overdose and deaths and that's by providing tools, resources, programs, volunteer opportunities and more to spread awareness –  and that is just what OD Free Marin and Youth Transforming Justice do.”


Naloxone Outreach Coordinator for OD Free Marin, Colyn Heimerman, hopes including youth in their work will be important to keep them safe, “Youth can help reduce overdoses by having conversations with those close to them about the risks of fentanyl and why it is important to practice harm reduction techniques such as carrying Narcan (an opioid overdose reversal spray) with them.” Youth Transforming Justice Program Director, Antonio Zavala, was invited by OD Free Marin to present to young people at Tamalpais High School about the dangers of fentanyl and harm reduction principles. Heimerman, who was there for the presentation, believes it was very effective. “I appreciate how a safe space was created to allow us to discuss these critical topics with young men since men make up nearly three-quarters of overdose victims in Marin County.” 


Michelle Leopold emphasizes the importance of education not only for youth but also for parents and adults who work with young people. “I attended a three-high-school parent education event with about a dozen experts in Marin’s youth drug scene – and not even 20 parents showed up, combined, from three high schools. We still have too many ostriches in our community with their heads in the sand, or fingers in their ears, not willing to confront the national epidemic killing too many of our young adults,” she said. 


Our Substance Safety Skills training is a requirement for all respondent-clients referred to YTJ, and they must attend with a parent or guardian. As overdose deaths among young people concerning fentanyl have spiked in recent years, we have also put a greater emphasis on educating respondents and parents about fentanyl. The lived experience testimonies from parents like Leopold are extremely valuable. They are impactful in truly understanding the human costs of fentanyl on an individual and family level. “I am always grateful to speak out about fentanyl in Marin because more education is needed, especially among our young adults and their parents,” says Leopold.


Fentanyl is finally starting to be recognized as a crisis that needs to be addressed. “Stigma around a 15-year-old’s addiction like my son’s, made it hard to ask for help – and his early onset of substance use made it challenging to find help for a non-adult,” Leopold said. Young people in Marin are now starting to get more adequate resources for support and education about fentanyl and how widely it is found in more common substances. While these steps are encouraging, organizations, schools, and parents need to continue to expand these resources and make them more accessible for all. Access to resources should not be dependent on a family's wealth to access effective treatment for a child struggling with substance abuse. Leopold says “We need more resources – and an easy roadmap to find the destinations needed for our at-risk teens.”


Resources for Support in Addiction and Recovery

Crisis Text Line

  • Text MARIN to 741741

  • offers free, 24/7, confidential crisis counseling via text to anyone experiencing anxiety, depression, substance use, suicidal ideation, or similar issues

Suicide and Crisis Hotline

  • Call 988


“About Us.” OD Free Marin, odfreemarin.org/about/

Botti, Written by Tony. “The Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner's Office - Beware of Potentially Fatal Fentanyl Pills Disguised as Xanax.” Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner's Office, 12 May 2020, https://www.fresnosheriff.org/media-relations/beware-of-potentially-fatal-fentanyl-pills-disguised-as-xanax.html


Drinking in America - Alcohol in America - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK217463/



“New Adai Report: Dramatic Increases in Opioid Overdose Deaths Due to Fentanyl among Young People in Wa.” Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute, https://adai.uw.edu/new-report-youth-fentanyl/


Spencekimball. “Drug Overdose Deaths among Teenagers Surged during the Pandemic Driven by Illicit Fentanyl.” CNBC, CNBC, 19 Dec. 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/12/19/fentanyl-drug-overdose-deaths-surged-among-teenagers-during-pandemic.html.

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