By BRIANNA VACCARI
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Sept. 13, 2023
MERCED (CVJC) — With the simple message, “One pill will kill,” Merced County’s top prosecutor hopes to save lives by educating young people about the prevalence of fentanyl.
The message is adapted from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s public awareness campaign on the dangers of the synthetic opioid. Public health, education and law enforcement agencies across the country are using it to combat the rise of the powerful drug officials say is coming into the country via Mexican cartels.
Fentanyl comes in liquid, powder or pill form and often is laced illegally into other drugs such as marijuana, methamphetamine or fake prescription drugs sold on the street. The Centers for Disease Control reports that fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Just a tiny amount can be deadly.
In the last two years, 44 Merced County residents died from overdosing on fentanyl, District Attorney Nicole Silveira said. The youngest victim was 16 and the oldest was 64. This year, the number of fentanyl-related deaths already is higher than this time last year, she said.
“It’s attacking our citizens on many fronts,” Silveira told the Merced County Board of Supervisors during a presentation on Tuesday.
Also this year, the California Highway Patrol on a number of occasions has seized large amounts of fentanyl during traffic stops in Merced County. In May, California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined local law enforcement agencies to announce the seizure of 40 pounds of fentanyl. In July, CHP found 160 pounds of pills laced with fentanyl during a traffic stop, among other narcotics, in what officers called the largest drug bust in the county’s history.
Just this week, CHP officers seized another 100 pounds of fentanyl-laced pills in a similar stop.
In January, Silveira met with the Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team (MAGNET), which told her more must be done to combat fentanyl.
The fentanyl campaign uses a three-pronged approach: education starting at the high school level; billboards; and a public service announcement to air on cable television and streaming services. The district attorney’s office is partnering with the Merced County Office of Education, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, the Merced County Fire Department and MAGNET.
Young people are particularly at risk for accidental fentanyl overdoses, Silveira said. Nationwide, fentanyl is the leading cause of accidental death for young Americans, killing more people than car accidents, suicide or gun violence – a phenomenon Silveira called “absolutely terrifying.”
“Fentanyl is the most dangerous drug for children today,” said Dr. Steve Tietjen, Merced County Superintendent of Schools. “It appears as candy, designed to get our children and grandchildren to experiment. No one can afford to ignore this new drug crisis. One pill can kill.”
Both Silveira and Tietjen told anecdotes of young people and working professionals who fell victim to fentanyl.
“It’s a drug that does not discriminate based on lifestyle or age,” Silveira said.
The campaign will work with Arrive Alive, an organization known for its drinking-and-driving educational program that stages interactive car crashes and their aftermath at high schools. Arrive Alive will use a similar approach, with an emphasis on fentanyl, at each of Merced County’s 17 high schools. In future years, Silveira hopes to expand to the county’s middle schools.
The PSA, developed with MCOE’s production team, features several local leaders including Silveira, Tietjen, Sheriff Vern Warnke, and Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria.
The campaign is also launching a competition for county middle and high schoolers to create their own commercial on the dangers of fentanyl. The winning concept will be professionally produced and the winner’s school will receive $5,000 to support its anti-gang or anti-drug program. The deadline for submissions is Oct. 13. For more information, visit https://www.mcoe.org/partnerships/one-pill-will-kill.
Tietjen, who also attended the Board of Supervisors meeting, said that Narcan, a drug that reverses overdoses, is on hand at every junior high and high school in the county.
“It’s kind of a sad statement, but I want you to know we’re doing all we can to make sure that our kids are safe,” Tietjen said.
Billboards with the “one pill will kill” message also are going up in Santa Nella, Los Banos, Delhi, Winton, Atwater, Merced, Planada and Le Grand.
“The billboards are important because they not only seek to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl – parents, students, everyday citizens – but we also need to educate our drug dealers,” Silveira said. “They need to know that what they are peddling is deadly poison, and if they provide fentanyl to someone who then dies from that fentanyl, they will be investigated for murder and could be charged with it.”
The campaign is paid for using money seized from convicted drug dealers, Silveira said. The state gives 65% of the money back to the law enforcement agencies, and 15% of that amount is set aside for combating drug abuse and gang activity, Silveira said.
“So what that means is this campaign comes at no cost to the county or the taxpayer,”she said. “Instead we are taking the drug dealers’ money and using it against them.”
For more information on fentanyl and how to talk to young people about its dangers, visit https://www.mcoe.org/partnerships/one-pill-will-kill.
Brianna Vaccari is the governmental accountability/watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced. Sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.
This story was published in partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan community newsroom. To get regular coverage from the CVJC, sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.