Arizona Criminal Justice Commission Executive Director Andrew Lefevre speaks at a press conference about the results of the 2022 Arizona Youth Survey, Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Tempe in Tempe Arizona. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

As fentanyl overdoses rise, a new study found nearly half of Arizona teenagers never heard of the drug.

The biennial 2022 Arizona Youth Survey released last week found 47% of 8th graders had never heard of fentanyl, compared with 33% of 10th graders and 25% of 12th graders. 

“There’s this very large gap between information and understanding about this dangerous drug in our youth,” said Andrew LeFevre, executive director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which conducted the biennial survey. 

LeFevre said this is the first year the commission asked specific question about fentanyl and already it’s a troubling stat about the “number one threat” in the state.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid prescribed for pain that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

From 2017 to 2021, over 1,100 people under the age of 24 died of an opioid overdose, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.  

Over 70% of the fentanyl seized coming into the U.S. enters through Arizona, LeFevre said. “We are the main highway for fentanyl pills,” LeFevre said.

The survey gathered input from 50,000 students from every county in Arizona. 

More than 300 schools participated in the survey and LeFevre said each one will receive an individualized report.

The results of the survey were presented in conjunction with the fifth annual Arizona Drug Summit hosted by Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Executive Director Dawn Mertz and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk. 

HIDTA facilitates, supports and enhances collaborative efforts for drug control efforts among law enforcement and community-based organizations in the state. 

Largely, the survey revealed a decline in overall substance use over the last

six years.

Of 12th graders reported in the study, the most commonly abused substance in a 30-day period is alcohol at 23%, marijuana at 18%, e-cigarettes at 15%, and marijuana concentrates at 14%.

The youth survey is mandated by state law and helps school administrators and planners at the city, county and state-level determine how to best help students with issues that directly pertain to them.

The survey helps examine significant community issues, modify or redesign existing projects or policies, as well as secure funding, and design and implement new projects or policies.   

Outside of law enforcement, Lefevre said education remains the first and foremost thing people can do to help young people and parents understand the drug's dangers.

Shari Dukes helped speak on this matter from a parent’s perspective.

Dukes’ son Ethan died in 2019 from an overdose with one pill laced with Fentanyl, a fact she only found out after his autopsy.

Dukes, who for more than 40 years was a school administrator with the J.O. Combs Unified School District, Dukes said she had conversations with her son about drugs. 

But Dukes said when she read that drug on the autopsy report, it shocked her.

“I didn’t even know how to spell it,” Dukes said.

At 16 years old Ethan lived as “a very active young man” involved in advanced classes and sports, his mother said.

Though he battled depression in the year leading up to this death, Dukes said this one “misguided” decision impacted her son’s entire life.

Dukes said the “one pill can kill” routine doesn’t work for her, and that’s why she said it’s her mission to inform the public about the dangers of fentanyl.

“One pill killed my son,” Dukes said. “And that’s what I want people to know.”

Like most parents, Dukes said she believed her child wouldn’t die, much less before her. 

“He is always going to be gone, and I will always love him,” Dukes said. “But we as parents need to make sure that this does not happen to anyone else by talking to our kids.”

Dukes said the problem permeates our entire society and threatens youth from all classes and all areas.

“There’s not a few kids, it’s not ‘those kids,’” Dukes said. “It’s all our kids that we need to make sure that we are addressing, we are supporting, we are loving, we are nurturing, we are showing up for.”

In order to start the conversation, Dukes said parents should be open and speak with their kids as if it’s the last conversation they have with them. 

Dukes still remembers exchanging “I love yous and the last “I’ll see in the morning, mom” Ethan said on that fateful Friday night in February 2019.

Dukes would find Ethan still in his bed that Saturday morning and said she lives with the grim reality every day: There are no more mornings.

“I just plead with parents to please talk to your child, no matter how difficult,” Dukes said. “It is much easier than standing right here talking to you about my child  who has died.”

The AYS looked at other issues beyond substance use including adverse childhood experiences, risk and protective factors, handgun use and violence

exposure, dangerous driving, and gang involvement. 

More than 60% of students reported at least one adverse childhood experience. 

The most frequent reported include if their parents ever separated or divorced (40%), living with adults who insulted or put them down (32%), or living with an alcoholic (30%).

According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, research has established a link between early childhood experiences of abuse or neglect and negative outcomes later in life. 

The study also asked students about risk and preventive factors. 

Only 31% of students reported they had a high risk “of engaging in problem behaviors.” 

Approximately 61% of students reported they had a high protection among their community, family, school, and peer and individual environment. 

Some of those include opportunities for prosocial involvement in school (69%), opportunities for prosocial involvement with family (57%), and belief in the Moral Order (56%). 

“Kids listen to parents,” LeFevre said. So, we need to have those conversations.”

For more information about the fentanyl crisis, visit the Substance Abuse Coalition Leaders of Arizona Toolkit at saclaz.org/toolkit.

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