We're Fighting Fake Pills

Counterfeit drugs are killing teens at a shocking rate—but the students on these pages are fighting back to help save lives

If you drove by Glenwood Springs High School last August, you would have seen a line of 72 purple flags fluttering in the breeze. The flags were planted by Ashley, a senior at the school, and her mom, in remembrance of the 72 people in their community who’ve died of drug overdoses since 2017. One of those flags was for Ashley’s older sister, Emily.

In April 2020, Emily took what she thought was a common painkiller. But the pill wasn’t what Emily assumed. It was a fake version of the painkiller, and it contained a deadly drug called fentanyl. That single pill killed her.

A Dangerous Drug

Fentanyl is a type of opioid. Opioids are powerful painkillers that doctors sometimes prescribe to help their patients manage chronic pain. But when used incorrectly, any opioid can be extremely dangerous.

Fentanyl is even more dangerous than most opioids. That’s because it is incredibly potent—100 times stronger than morphine, which itself is extremely strong. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a dose of fentanyl tiny enough to fit on the tip of a pencil can cause your breathing to stop. 

Fentanyl is also cheaper to make than many other pain medications. Its cheapness, combined with its potency, makes it extremely attractive to drug dealers looking to maximize profits. These dealers illegally manufacture fentanyl and then sell it disguised as other common painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. In 2020, deaths from drug overdoses skyrocketed by 30 percent, and drug enforcement agents say fentanyl-laced fake pills are largely to blame. 

Just a Tap Away

You need a prescription for most legitimate painkillers, but drug dealers sell them illegally on the streets. They also are increasingly selling pills on social media, using popular platforms like TikTok and Instagram to target teens and young adults. 

In response, social media companies say they’re working to shut down dealers and keep teens safe. For example, when someone searches for drug-related words on Snapchat, they’re directed to a portal where they can learn about fake pills. Police are also using undercover Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat accounts to identify and arrest dealers.

But there’s still a long way to go before all teens know about the dangers of buying or taking pills not specifically prescribed for them. According to a recent survey, only 27 percent of teens are aware that fentanyl is being used in counterfeit pills. 

The activists on the following pages want to change that. They’ve all been touched by the fentanyl epidemic, and are fighting back to try to prevent more tragic deaths from fake pills. Here are their stories. 

"I'm Raising Awareness With My Voice."

—Ashley, 17, Glenwood Springs, CO

Ashley’s sister Emily (left)

We got the call that my sister, Emily, had died on my birthday. I was in shock. Emily was always helping others. She would do things like go to school early to cook breakfast for her teachers, and she grew vegetables to donate to people in need. She also had a substance use disorder, but she’d gotten help and hadn’t used drugs for a year and a half.

Before she died, Emily had been texting us about a toothache, so we think she bought a pill online, believing it was the prescription painkiller Percocet. We don’t know where the pill came from, but we know that it contained fentanyl, and the fentanyl was what killed her.

After Emily died, I didn’t know what to do with my grief. My sister had been the person I would phone or text when I needed advice. It’s still hard to imagine going through life’s big moments, like graduating from high school and starting college, without my big sister. 

Gregg & Cath Photographers

Ashley walks to raise awareness

At the time she died, Emily was in school to get a degree in addiction therapy counseling—another way she wanted to help people. I decided the best way I could honor her memory was to continue the work she was doing by speaking out about the dangers of fake pills. 

I started by planting the purple flags for those we’ve lost. I also speak at schools. I tell Emily’s story and talk about how social media is worsening the fake pill epidemic. For some kids, my presentation is their first time learning about fentanyl. 

I bring a little piece of Emily with me to these presentations: her old red backpack. At the end of my talk, I ask kids to drop a notecard with their anonymous thoughts into Emily’s backpack. By the time I leave, that bag is full of messages of honesty and optimism. Knowing that I’ve made an impact makes me feel hopeful too. While it’s too late to save my sister, I’m dedicated to spreading Emily’s story and fighting to save others’ lives.

"I'm Advocating With My Writing."

—Henry, 17, San Anselmo, CA

In 2019, Trevor, an 18-year-old recent graduate of a high school in my district, died in his dorm room after taking a fake pill laced with fentanyl. I didn’t know Trevor personally, but, as the editor of my high school’s student paper, The Pitch, I’ve helped share his story.

I learned about the fentanyl crisis from my journalism teacher. I knew immediately that we needed to publish an article about it. The fact that a single pill can kill you is terrifying. I was also surprised to learn how prevalent the problem is in my community. Trevor was just one of several kids from my area who have died from a fentanyl overdose in recent years. My peers and I have been taught about the effects of drugs since middle school, but I believe there’s not nearly enough awareness about counterfeit pills. 

For my article, I spoke with the parents of teens who had lost their lives to fentanyl. I can’t fathom these parents’ pain at losing their kids. They shared their stories because they want the truth to come out about this deadly drug. 

There can be a stigma around drug use and addiction that makes people reluctant to talk about it, but for the parents I spoke to, saving lives is the most important thing. My piece became the top trending story on my paper’s website, which makes me think teens and adults are eager for this information. 

In writing my article, I learned that when it comes to fentanyl and counterfeit pills, there’s no room to experiment or get high safely. I hope my article brings visibility to the problem and encourages my peers to think twice before buying pills online. 

(To read Henry's article, click here.)

"I'm Sharing My Overdose Story."

—Gavin, 19, Minneapolis, MN

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug use, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline at 1-800-662-4357

Both my parents were drug addicts, so addiction is in my genes. By the age of 12, I was using marijuana and prescription pills. A few years later, I was heavily abusing multiple drugs. 

In October 2020, I bought a batch of meth, or methamphetamine, which is a type of stimulant, or speed. The meth turned out to be laced with fentanyl. Even though I was around drugs all the time, I had no idea about the risk of fentanyl poisoning. The amount of fentanyl I accidentally took was enough to cause an overdose, but I was incredibly lucky, and I didn’t die. Having that near-death experience made me realize I needed help, and a few days later, I checked myself into a treatment center for people struggling with drug abuse. 

Now I’m sober and working as a youth prevention advocate to help spread the word about the dangers of drugs and fentanyl in particular. When I speak at schools, I share the facts, and I’m also honest about my personal story. One of the first questions I ask is, “What do you want to do with your life?” Then I tell students that I’ve lost 14 friends to drug overdoses and almost became a statistic myself. By the end of the talk, my point has been made: A single pill could destroy all of your goals. I almost lost out on the chance to reach mine.

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