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Counterfeit pills contribute to the fentanyl deaths of young people

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Social media networks say they're cracking down on drug trafficking on their sites. As Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR reports, pills that look like prescription drugs but are actually laced with fentanyl are killing teens and young adults.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: On May 1, Sam Cioffi headed out to celebrate. He'd just set a record at Salem State University, outside Boston, for the most lacrosse goals scored in one season. The next morning, Sam was dead. Here's what his mother, Sally Cioffi, has pieced together.

SALLY CIOFFI: He went out to a bar. He's 22. And I guess he - on the way home in an Uber, he took what he thought was a Percocet.

BEBINGER: It wasn't. Cioffi says a toxicology report showed the pill her son swallowed was fentanyl. Cioffi traced the deadly fake pill purchase and Sam's recreational drug use through the Instagram and Snapchat messages Sam exchanged with a dealer.

CIOFFI: He kind of, like, friended him. I mean, I think that's originally how these kids find drug dealers - is on social - Snapchat and Instagram.

BEBINGER: Where it can be hard to tell who you can trust, where a potentially lethal pill that looks like cold medicine, Adderall or Xanax is delivered after just a few taps on a screen. Cioffi says buying fake pills on social media is way too easy.

CIOFFI: These kids think they're invincible. They're not. They need to know it's dangerous.

BEBINGER: Opioid-related deaths have nearly doubled for 15- to 24-year-olds since 2015. National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkov says many teens and young adults are used to taking prescription pills and assume they're safe.

NORA VOLKOV: And that's where the illicit pills come into the fore because they are being disguised as these drugs, but they are basically fentanyl.

BEBINGER: Warnings about these fake pills, sometimes called fentapills, are starting to spread on middle, high school and college campuses, using the DEA's One Pill Can Kill campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl are deadly. Be their protector. Be informed.

BEBINGER: The DEA says 4 of every 10 pills it tests include a lethal dose of fentanyl. Fake Percocet, like the pill Sam Cioffi took, is the most common. But the agency is seeing an influx of fentanyl made to look like the ADHD medication Adderall, produced by Mexican drug cartels. Jon DeLena is second in command for the DEA in New England.

JON DELENA: We know in this country who the major consumer of Adderall is, what the age groups are. That's an insidious move on behalf of those two deadly cartels to do that. They're trying to create as many different pills as they can to attract as many users as they can.

BEBINGER: DeLena says the DEA is tackling the cartels and supply coming into the country. He says social media networks need to step up warnings to users and block more sales.

DELENA: If you have a smartphone and a social media account, a drug trafficker can find you. These companies in general need to do more.

BEBINGER: Snapchat and Meta, the parent company of Instagram, said they are doing more. They say improved algorithms are helping them catch 90% or more of the drug activity and shut down dealers. They redirect users who search for drugs or related emojis to pieces about fentanyl-laced pills. A spokesperson for Snap, which owns Snapchat, says the company is, quote, "bringing every resource to bear to keep fighting this epidemic." Some parents are suing Snapchat. Ed Ternan decided to work with Snapchat instead. He's on the company's Safety Advisory Board and tries to bring social media companies, drug investigators and others together.

ED TERNAN: This is going to get worse unless we all find ways to cooperate and stop pointing fingers and blaming.

BEBINGER: In the meantime, here's some guidance from parents. Spread the warning about fake, fentanyl-laced pills and consider carrying Narcan, the nasal spray that can revive someone if needed. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.