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The Cat's Eye

The Cat's Eye

The Cat's Eye

Drug harm reduction: the vital next step against the War on Drugs

Saif Lakhwani
Last year, in 2023, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 78.4 million counterfeit Fentanyl laced pills. Counterfeit prescription pills are widely available and often sold online – meaning anyone with an internet connect can come into contact with lethal amounts of Fentanyl unintentionally. Since 2019, the rate of DEA-seized counterfeit pills has increased by 430 percent. Graphic created in Canva.

Drug and substance use has been relevant in society for countless years. For just as long as substance use has existed, abuse has existed in the same realm as well. As time has evolved, so has the type of drugs that people have abused, and in recent years, it’s been as dangerous as ever. 

In the 1800s, British politicians implemented a plan that would essentially cause a substantial portion of the Chinese population to fall suit to an addiction to Opium poppy. This flower contains the heavily addictive narcotic Opium, which drugs such as morphine, heroin, oxycodone, and fentanyl are derived from. These acts followed The Opium Wars, a military and trade war between the Western powers and China. After the conflicts had ended, China implemented a total ban on all Opium as a way to attempt to respond to the fact that a significant number of the population was addicted to opium. The rule enacted was any Opium shop owner found operating after the ban was ordered to death by strangulation. Addiction was that serious in China.

In recent years, some modern governments in the Western world have taken a different type of response to battling drug addiction. At the beginning of 2023, the Vancouver, B.C., government reformed their drug laws to now allow possession of 2.5 grams of hard substances, including fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, MDMA (referred to as ecstasy, or ‘X’), etc. This is supposed to be a change in the way governments respond to drug crises, as many governments, such as the United States, have piloted significant anti-drug policies (e.g., the War on Drugs) to no avail. 

“[The Canadian policy marks] a monumental shift in drug policy that favors fostering trusting and supportive relationships in health and social services over further criminalization,” British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennet said in a January 2023 press conference. “Through this exemption, we will reduce the stigma and the shame that keeps people silent about their use.”

The Canadian government has been transparent, though, that this does not mean the outright legalization of drugs but as a means to change the way addicts are looked at in society. They hope that changing the way people suffering from drug addiction are looked at might make the fight against it more accessible by reducing the stigma around it. Some people, though, still feel that the drugs themselves are still the problem.

I don’t know how effective the destigmatization is because you’ll still have those people on the street addicted to drugs; that only works if the people themselves want to get help.”

— Ms. Shannon Patton, A.P. Psychology teacher

“I don’t know how effective the destigmatization is because you’ll still have those people on the street addicted to drugs; that only works if the people themselves want to get help,” A.P. Psychology teacher Ms. Shannon Patton said. 

Drug harm reduction and ensuring drug use safety are now more relevant than ever. The number of deaths from things like drug overdoses has been steadily on the rise in world powers like the United States and the United Kingdom since the 1990s, and the number of deaths doesn’t seem to slow down, even with the money being spent on harm reduction and awareness programs. 

In the government fiscal year of 2022, the United States budget was $39 billion for federal drug control policy. The year 2022 still displayed an overall 3% increase from 2022 in drug-related deaths despite the money spent on harm reduction. This proves that the traditional methods that governments have been using to try and reduce the effect of drugs on the country have not been successful.

Drug addiction and overall substance abuse aren’t just developed from trying a substance, though. In many cases, researchers and doctors have discovered that a lot of mental factors contribute to whether or not someone may be susceptible to drug addiction. 

It is commonly agreed upon by drug addiction experts and researchers that people addicted to drugs are seeking the substance as a form of escape from their lives, which helps support the argument that mental health factors play a significant role in drug use. 

Pretty Brandao when he entered recovery for Fentanyl addiction. Brandao has been clean of all substances for three years. (Courtesy of Pretty Brandao)

“A lot of substance abuse is because of underlying mental health issues, so before anybody struggling can get help, they’ll have to sort that out,” Patton said.

It has been acknowledged by the scientific community since the 1990s, though, that mental health played a role in substance abuse. In a study conducted by psychiatric experts in 1991, it was discovered that out of 298 cocaine abusers, at least 44 percent actively had a mood disorder and that at least 60 percent had a history of mood disorders and irregularity. 

It’s understood that mental health plays a factor in drug use. However, some would argue that there’s a lot more than that.

Pretty Brandao, a former Fentanyl addict and peddler, claims it’s a lot more than just mental health at the root of America’s drug problem. After overcoming his addiction, Brandao now works as a life coach. 

“What you see in America today is as a result of the actions of Purdue Pharma,” Brandao said.

What you see in America today is as a result of the actions of Purdue Pharma.”

— Pretty Brandao

In the early 1990s, the Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma patented and started developing the prescription painkiller OxyContin. When Purdue Pharma marketed the drug to doctors, the company never mentioned the fact that this ‘miracle’ drug was heavily addictive. As a result, when patients would come to see their doctor for any type of discomfort or pain, they were often given a steady prescription of OxyContin. What followed was a generation of Americans hooked on opiate-based prescription painkillers, also known as the opioid epidemic. In 2021, Purdue Pharma settled bankruptcy after facing numerous lawsuits from different U.S. states. The Sackler family still retained billions of dollars as a result of their development of the drug. It is still under deliberation by the United States Supreme Court whether or not the bankruptcy plea is to be accepted.

“[Another] root cause for addiction is [because of] a lot of these artists, like Future, rapping about popping percs and taking Molly, is what makes these kids go out and do it. They wanna be cool like the rappers,” Brandao said.

Brandao, who lives in Los Angeles and now dedicates his life to assisting people to recover from drug addiction, doesn’t inherently think it’s an addict’s fault they have to turn to crime for their fix.

Pretty Brandao, after recovery, living his new life as a life coach helping people, including those addicted to substances, drastically change their lives. (Courtesy of Pretty Brandao)

“You have to consider when a person has no way of supporting their habit because of Purdue Pharma, they have to shoplift. If we do not help them, they have no resources; this is what they have to do,” Brandao said. 

According to Brandao, America has not approached drug harm reduction effectively.

“America has failed with harm reduction and has enabled addiction because of it. I feel like if America had approached this differently, things might’ve played out differently. Look at Prohibition, we didn’t know what would happen,” Brandao said.

Brandao refers to the Prohibition Era (1920-1933) in the United States, the thirteen years when alcohol was illegal in the United States. Alcohol during this period served as the scapegoat for the increasing amount of domestic violence and child abandonment cases. Notoriously, the alcohol ban was not effective in preventing the consumption or production of alcohol.

The argument essentially is by banning and criminalizing drugs; substances will still be used as a scapegoat.  

“Eventually, though, we’ll get it right. There’s a learning curve,” Brandao said.

Eventually, though, we’ll get it right. There’s a learning curve.”

— Pretty Brandao

Brandao is among the increasing amount of modern thinkers who believe the way drug addiction is approached needs to change to solve the problem. 

“I wasn’t just taking a [Percocet] and clubbing; I was sitting in a room high on Fentanyl smoking Newports; that’s a disease,” Brandao said. 

If drug addiction is a disease, then this is a disease that is running rampant and spreading concerningly quickly. This also means that a proper response is necessary.

“If we had more programs and more places for people to get help, this would help mitigate the problem,” Assistant Principle of Instruction Dr. Sherry Berwick said.

With rates of abuse higher than they have ever been, school administrators like Berwick are concerned for student safety. Berwick believes that the first step to reducing the danger of drugs is through proper education. 

“The truth is, now, with dangerous drugs like Fentanyl out there, you don’t even know what you could be taking anymore. A lot of these drugs are dangerous and have high rates of abuse, so it’s important that [students and parents] are educated on the topic,” Berwick said. 

Approx. 22,000 illicit Fentanyl pills that were seized in Los Angeles by the LAPD in June 2023. (Courtesy of the LAPD)

Fentanyl, the highly potent synthetic opioid used medically as an anesthetic and for pain relief, has changed the way the illicit substance market works. Over the last two years, Fentantly has slowly become one of the most produced drugs in the world and now is commonly cut in all drugs commonly bought illegally. Before Fentanyl was introduced, most users would be able to purchase substances like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, Percocet (OxyCodone amphetamine), or Xanax, the benzodiazepine, and even if their substances weren’t pure, they would still survive their dose. Currently, in most cases, if any person were to purchase a substance containing unregulated Fentanyl, they would likely overdose, as has been seen in many cases because of how strong the drug is.

Illicit package with over 10,000 illegal Fentanyl tablets disguised as Percocet 30, the common opioid prescription painkiller. Seized by the Los Angeles Police Department. (Courtesy of the LAPD)

The DEA suggests that it should be considered that all substances purchased illegally have a high risk of containing lethal amounts (2mg) of Fentanyl. This is the concerning part because now, even people not looking for Fentanyl can still quickly come into contact with it.

Drugs such as Fentanyl are the reason why it is now more critical than ever that more actions in the direction of drug safety and drug harm reduction are taken. Some policies have already been implemented. For example, Narcan, a life-saving resource that serves as a direct quick-action antidote to an opioid overdose, is now kept in multiple locations on the Rancho Cucamonga High School campus. 

“Narcan is one of the most important tools in our harm reduction kit. The reason why we can have this conversation is because of Narcan; it saved my life three times,” Brandao said.

Naloxone (aka Narcan) was made available as an over-the-counter treatment for opioid-related drug overdoses in 2023 and, since then, has saved countless lives. (Courtesy of the LAPD)

This isn’t enough; it takes more than just simply having the solution to an overdose to prevent tragedy as a result of substances. Instead, the system in which people with drug addiction exist needs reform; we have to change the way we look at drug abuse and end the stigma if a solution in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco is to be found. 

Parents who are concerned for the safety of their children should encourage an open conversation about drugs and substances. Despite the fact this may be an uncomfortable conversation, it is vital that every person knows the dangers of illicit substances and knows proper drug safety protocol. It’s a fact that all drugs pose safety risks, but on the same accord, people will still do drugs. If it’s possible to make usage safer, it should be.

“There are a lot of parents that I would say are oblivious to the idea that their child could be involved in [and taking] drugs, but the reality is these drugs are dangerous [and lethal], so it’s important people have the right information, and that starts with proper education,” Berwick said. 

Anyone struggling or with further questions regarding substance abuse should contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


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About the Contributor
Saif Lakhwani
Saif Lakhwani, Assistant Editor-in-Chief
Saif Lakhwani is a senior at RCHS, and this is his second year in journalism. He is the assistant editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Cat’s Eye. His favorite thing about journalism is covering the school’s sports teams, and being able to investigate the important things happening on campus. When he is not working on the newspaper, Saif is busy designing clothes for his business Essence Studios, following the Nets, or listening to music. Enneagram/Myers-Briggs:  Type 8/ENTJ Favorite Artist: Kid Cudi  

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