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America’s downtowns are facing the fentanyl crisis

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(NewsNation) — America’s downtowns are the new front lines in the fight against fentanyl, according to groups dedicated to stopping overdoses.

Several months of 2022 saw record numbers for fentanyl busts across the country. The deadly drug is mainly coming in across the border from Mexico.

Just weeks ago in Florida, a police officer suffered a medical emergency after reportedly coming in contact with fentanyl during a traffic stop.

Overdose deaths in the U.S. are happening so frequently that Ashley Perkins of Project Opioid got a text that her friend died from an overdose just before her interview with NewsNation.

“It was just, I’m just letting you know we lost another one. That’s it. We don’t even talk about it anymore. ‘Oh what happened?’ ‘Oh what was it?’ We know what it is,” she said.

In Orlando, Florida Project Opioid founder Andrae Bailey suggested the fight against fentanyl isn’t just at the Mexican border but in the nation’s downtowns.

“Wherever young people are, we know there’s gonna be drugs and we know that we’re gonna lose lives every single day,” he said.

Dennis Lema is the sheriff in Seminole county, about 30 minutes outside Orlando. The number of overdoses in his county went down slightly last year, but that was from record highs the year before.

“Just last night, we had someone using marijuana that potentially was laced with fentanyl,” Lema said.

Lema’s deputies carry NARCAN, which is used to reverse opioid doses, on them. For the officers, it’s a matter of when they will need to use the drug, not if.

“They absolutely know within their first year of work it is very likely that they will not only deploy NARCAN, they will do it multiple times,” Lema said.

Project Opioid said overdose deaths in Florida are rising fastest in the central part of the state. Fentanyl-caused deaths in central Florida are up 172% from 2015, the group said.

“Three reasons: fentanyl, fentanyl, fentanyl. This drug is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in American history. It’s everywhere, and in every drug on these streets and in every downtown across the United States,” Bailey said about overdose deaths.

There are tools to reverse an opioid overdose, namely drugs like naloxone. It’s often referred to as Narcan, one of the name brand devices that delivers the drug, which can revive someone suffering an overdose.

This week, Project Opioid let NewsNation join as they went to bars and restaurants in downtown Orlando, handing out boxes of Kloxxado, an overdose reversal spray that’s twice as powerful as Narcan. It’s a new and necessary addition to their first aid kits.

Scott Kotroba owns six businesses in downtown Orlando.

“If we have a fire extinguisher and there’s a fire, we want all the staff to know how to use the fire extinguisher. And this kind of goes right in line with that,” he said.

Drugs like Kloxxado are important in cases where Narcan isn’t enough.

“There was a young lady who we were introduced to. Sixteen years old. She took what she thought was a Percocet and she was overdosing in the spare bedroom at her parent’s house. Law enforcement, paramedics show up and they have to bring her four Narcans to bring her back. Narcan is wonderful. The problem is the drugs are becoming more and more powerful,” Bailey told NewsNation.

Along with more powerful drugs are mounting fears of an opioid crisis that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“I don’t want this to be around anymore when my children are born. I know that sounds impossible, but I don’t think it is,” Perkins said.

Last May, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill upping the mandatory minimum sentence for people who traffic fentanyl.

But beyond that, groups like Project Opioid said downtowns like Orlando are the new frontlines. Having bars and restaurants equipped with reversal sprays is the next step when it seems like getting rid of fentanyl altogether just isn’t possible.

In addition to lifesaving drugs, former police officer is advocating for more education programs in schools to make children aware of the lethality of the drug.

“The only way to win this war is to reduce the demand and increase the education,” said Mark Powell, a former San Diego police officer. “There is no one single solution, but one involves a serious drug awareness campaign starting in elementary school and going all the way up.”

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