Around 500 Montgomery County residents packed into Clarksburg High School’s cafeteria on Saturday morning for the county’s first Family Forum on Fentanyl, sponsored by the organization Montgomery Goes Purple — and an additional 1,000 viewers tuned in via livestream. The event comes amid a surge of recent youth overdoses.
Montgomery County experienced 27 youth overdoses in 2021, five of which were fatal, according to police data. In 2022, there were 48 youth overdoses, including 11 fatal — representing a 78% overall increase that has resulted in widespread community calls to action.
Attendees received guidance on prevention and detection and had the opportunity to ask questions of experts, receive Narcan overdose medication and related training, and tour a facsimile of a teenager’s bedroom to learn where drugs might be hid.
Montgomery County Public Schools medical officer Patricia Kapunan gave a detailed presentation geared toward parents and caregivers. She suggested they:
- Educate themselves about substance use and the dangers of fentanyl
- Dialogue openly with children about family expectations around drug use
- Learn to recognize early signs of substance use, trauma and/or struggles with mental health
- Use non-stigmatizing language when discussing substance use with family
- Learn how to use Narcan and kits stocked in the home
Individuals are often exposed to the drug through fentanyl-laced substances and substances disguised as Xanax, Adderall, Percocet or oxycodone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The spike in overdoses is not limited to Montgomery County, Kapunan told attendees. Rising youth overdoses are part of a national trend that’s been building since 2019, she said, adding that it’s something that “really seems to be accelerating in our recent history.”
During a Q&A session, one student asked if the county knew where the illicit drugs are coming from.
“Every single fentanyl pill, counterfeit or otherwise, that’s used in this county has an origination somewhere overseas, usually at the hands of a drug cartel,” responded Capt. Nicholas Picerno, director of the police department’s Special Investigations Division.
Picerno was joined on the panel by experts representing the school district, local hospitals, County Health and Human Services and several local nonprofits.
During the Q&A, several community members mentioned having a loved one currently dealing with substance use. Police officials reminded attendees about Maryland’s Good Samaritan Law, which protects people assisting in an emergency overdose situation from arrest for certain crimes.
Parents were invited to step into the parking lot and explore the police department’s Community Opioid Prevention Education, or COPE, trailer. The inside of the trailer is set up to mimic a typical teenager’s bedroom, to help police teach parents how to identify the common places a student may hide illicit paraphernalia.
Other attendees stayed in the cafeteria to receive free Narcan kits and training. Mitchell said thanks to the forum, between 300 and 350 residents now carry Narcan kits and know how to administer it.
Montgomery Goes Purple is a volunteer-based group focused on overdose awareness and prevention. Chairperson Laura Mitchell said the organization hopes to help facilitate a deeper level of dialogue about substance use prevention within MCPS.
“At this point, we’re really hoping to start conversations,” she told Bethesda Beat.
The office of County Councilmember Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6) is working with MCPS to plan a similar forum with a strong Spanish component at Wheaton High School later in the spring, Fani-González wrote in an email to members of the media.
Mitchell told Bethesda Beat that Montgomery Goes Purple hopes to facilitate many more events like Saturday’s.
“Each event like this will put more people in a position to save a life,” she said. “While there’s still a heartbeat, there’s hope.”