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This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of the name of Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens.
DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds, with public health and law enforcement officials, detailed efforts Tuesday to raise awareness of a dramatic rise in fentanyl seen in Iowa.
The drug, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, is often found in pills that have been pressed to look like prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Xanax. The amount of fentanyl can vary from pill to pill, leading someone to be unaware that they’re taking a lethal dose, Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said at the news conference.
The amount of fentanyl seized by law enforcement in Iowa has quadrupled since just last year, Bayens said. In the first six months of 2021, Iowa law enforcement analyzed about 17,000 pills containing fentanyl that were designed to look like prescription drugs. In the first half of 2022, that number was 70,000, he said.
“The volume of fentanyl seized by law enforcement throughout Iowa is shocking, even to the most veteran narcotics agents and drug chemists,” he said.
Bayens described fentanyl as “poison” and said stopping drug trafficking in the state was a top priority of state law enforcement.
Reynolds said the state Department of Health and Human Services will expand a public multimedia campaign targeted to preteens, teens and young adults to include messaging about the risks of fentanyl in counterfeit pills. The campaign was launched in May and currently focuses on suicide prevention.
She said the state is working to expand services for young adults who deal with substance abuse disorders, including an upcoming Ames-based youth recovery center being developed by YSS, a nonprofit that helps homeless youth. The project received $10 million in funding from Central Iowa Community Services, a state-sponsored organization, in 2021.
“The earlier that young Iowans get treatment the higher the likelihood of long-term, successful sobriety,” she said.
Deric and Kathy Kidd spoke at the news conference about the death of their 17-year-old son, Sebastian, who died last year after they said he took half a pill that was sold as Percocet but contained fentanyl. Deric Kidd encouraged parents to talk to their children about drug use and the potential for overdose.
“It doesn’t matter what demographic you are from, it doesn’t matter who your parents are,” he said. “Trust me when I tell you, you don’t want to feel this pain. It never goes away.”
Fentanyl deaths rising in Iowa
Iowa has one of the lowest rates of drug overdose deaths in the United States at 14.3 per 100,000 in 2020, ranking 47th among, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that number is going up, Reynolds said, and fentanyl was involved more than 80 percent of opioid-related deaths in recent years.
The rate of overdoses is increasing faster among young people. Iowa has seen a 120 percent increase in overdose deaths among people under the age of 25 since 2019, Reynolds said.
“It's important that Iowans fully understand the deadly consequences of this drug,” Reynolds said. “So it's my hope that by raising awareness we'll see a decrease in these overall deaths. … For too many people, there are no second chances.”
In June, five residents of Cass County were arrested on federal indictments and charged with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. The investigation came after five people overdosed and two died over three months in Cass and Shelby counties, Bayens said.
Iowa State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein said that the concentration of fentanyl found in autopsies after drug overdoses has been increasing. The presence of fentanyl in drug-related deaths examined by Klein’s office has also doubled, from 23 to 46 percent.
“This leads me to believe that the doses people are taking now have increased, and in many cases people are unaware of the doses that they’re actually taking, and in some cases may be unaware that they’re even taking fentanyl with deadly consequences,” he said.