State launches new campaign to reduce fentanyl deaths

With Alaska’s drug overdose deaths surging, state leaders on May 6 kicked off a new campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of the drug that caused most of them: fentanyl.

The new campaign, called “One Pill Can Kill,” is national and spearheaded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies. But it has special meaning in Alaska, which last year had a record-high total of overdose deaths.

Preliminary numbers show that 342 Alaskans died from overdoses in 2023, a 40% increase over 2022 totals, according to the state Department of Health. Of the total, 264 — about three-quarters — were from fentanyl, up from 151 fentanyl deaths in 2022, according to the department’s preliminary numbers.

“This is the largest in Alaska’s history, and it marks a really devastating moment in history,” Heidi Hedberg, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said at the news conference.

Beyond the statistics are personal tragedies.

Sandy Snodgrass, a mother who lost her son in 2021 to a fentanyl overdose, recounted some of the details. “He was only 22 years old and my only child,” she said. “He died within shouting distance of help in a wooded area a short distance from a Wells Fargo drive-through and McDonald’s drive-through on Debarr Road in Anchorage. The devastation of his fentanyl poisoning death has impacted his family, friends and community in ways that I cannot fully describe here today.”

Karen Malcolm-Smith, who lost her son to an opioid overdose in 2017, described how such tragedies reverberate through families and communities.

“For people like Sandy and I, we will never experience a college graduation, attend a wedding, have grandchildren,” she said. Parents and family members cope with intense grief, depression and other mental health problems that are manifested in problems like divorce, physical health problems, “and unfortunately, we also see suicides,” Malcolm-Smith said.

She established the David Dylan Foundation in her son’s honor to encourage others to seek help for their addiction problems.

Hedberg said public education, including the One Pill Can Kill awareness campaign, is only one part of a multipronged state effort to stop fentanyl deaths.

While the Department of Public Safety works to intercept drugs so that the supply does not reach the public and the Department of Law pursues legal approaches to the problem, the Department of Health’s anti-opioid work focuses on harm reduction and treatment as well as on education, Hedberg said.

Last year, she said, the department distributed 46,000 anti-overdose naloxone kits and 89,000 fentanyl test strips.

Now the department is preparing to distribute $3.3 million in grants for local, regional and statewide programs for harm reduction and treatment.

The money comes from one of the national settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors, a $26 billion settlement struck in 2021. Alaska is expected to get $58.5 million over 18 years from it, Hedberg said.

Another part of the state effort is increasing penalties for distributors of fentanyl and other deadly substances.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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