A bill aimed at reducing use and deaths from fentanyl and other opioids among young people is headed to Gov. Tina Kotek to sign.
Senate Bill 238 requires the Oregon Health Authority, Board of Education and Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to develop education materials to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of opioids, as well state laws that protect people who report overdoses or seek treatment.
Oregon faces an opioid crisis, with 280 fatalities in 2019, 472 in 2020 and 745 in 2021, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Many of the deaths are attributed to fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine and so potent that the equivalent of two grains of sand can kill. It is often laced in illicit pills made to resemble prescription oxycodone or tranquilizers such as Xanax.
Dozens of young people have experimented with the pills and died, including 73 between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2021, according to The Lund Report. Studies show that teens are largely unaware of the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills.
Tony Morse, policy director of the Portland-based advocacy group Oregon Recovers, praised the bill’s passage. It passed the Senate April 3 on a 28-1 vote with only Republican Sen. Art Robinson of Cave Junction opposed and passed the House on a 59-0 vote on Thursday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this bill will save lives,” Morse said. “Fentanyl is claiming too many lives, snatching away too many futures, leaving too many grieving families.”
The Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission’s statewide plan, now three years old, targets school-based programs as a key prevention tool. Following the deaths of several students and former students in 2020 and 2021 in the Beaverton School District, the district became one of the first in the country to mandate yearly fentanyl lessons for all middle and high school students.
The district has not had any fentanyl-related deaths since, administrators said, but Portland schools have. Two McDaniel High School students died in 2022, and earlier this year a teen at Franklin High died from a suspected fentanyl overdose.
Beaverton offers its teaching materials for middle and high schools to all schools nationwide: They’re posted on its website and available for download with no restrictions. Critics say that other schools in Oregon should adopt the program and that the state doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel by ordering the development of new curricula.
The bill also lacks urgency, they say. The materials don’t have to be ready until the 2024-25 school year, and the program will not include material on the dangers of alcohol or methamphetamine, also major problems in Oregon. Federal data show that among those 12 and older, Oregon has the highest rate of illicit drug use at nearly 10% and ranks fifth nationwide in the percentage of those addicted to alcohol: 12% of those 12 and up.
The state’s drug problem also prompted other bills this session, including House Bill 2395, which is championed by a physician, Democratic Rep. Maxine Dexter of Portland. The proposal aims to make an overdose reversal drug, naloxone, more available. It sailed through the House, with a 48-9 vote, but is now stuck in the Senate as Republicans continue a quorum-denying walkout that prevents the Senate from voting on bills.
By Oregon Capital Chronicle Staff
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