State Rep. Creekmore says about 10 school districts will participate in the initial in-school drug abuse education program. He plans to seek more funding to expand the effort in the 2024 legislative session.
Overdose deaths in the nation as well as in the state of Mississippi continue to take far too many lives, resulting in an effort by Mississippi lawmakers to educate youth about the dangers of opioids, especially counterfeit versions that may be laced with fentanyl.
A new law, House Bill 231, went into effect this year and puts the Mississippi Department of Mental Health in charge of developing an in-school education program that aims to deter young people from developing drug addictions. At a later date, when more funding is made available, a mass media campaign will work to educate the general public about the health risks of drug abuse, among other efforts.
House Bill 231 was the result of hearings held back in 2021 concerning the ongoing opioid issues plaguing Mississippi. In those discussions, House District 14 State Representative Sam Creekmore IV was told overdose deaths tripled in children aged 10 to 14 since 2019, and that the leading cause of death in people aged 18 to 45 is due to a drug overdose. He suspects fentanyl plays a part in those statistical increases.
The Mississippi Department of Health reports that since 1999 more than 932,000 people died from a drug overdose nationally, with 70 percent of those deaths being associated with illegitimate opioid pills laced with fentanyl. Recently, the department issued a public safety alert concerning counterfeit prescription medications.
According to a Drug Enforcement Agency public safety alert issued in 2022, an analysis of seized counterfeit pills found 6 out of 10 were laced with lethal doses of fentanyl. A similar analysis by the DEA the year prior found 4 out of 10 pills contained potentially lethal amounts of the drug.
“More than half of the fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills being trafficked in communities across the country now contain a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl. This marks a dramatic increase – from four out of ten to six out of ten – in the number of pills that can kill,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram stated in an agency release. “These pills are being mass-produced by the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel in Mexico. Never take a pill that wasn’t prescribed directly to you. Never take a pill from a friend. Never take a pill bought on social media. Just one pill is dangerous and one pill can kill.”
The fake pills listed in the alert include OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax.
This is very concerning to State Rep. Creekmore.
“If you have a child in college or high school, and someone hands him a pill, he’s got to know he’s playing Russian roulette,” Creekmore said. “We can’t control what comes across the border from Mexico, so we got to educate our people. At some point in every one’s life, they will most likely be faced with an illegal drug situation, so education is important.”
The education efforts intended through House Bill 231, authored by Creekmore, will start out small in the first year due to the funding totaling $1 million. Creekmore said about 10 school districts will participate initially, even though he wanted it to be statewide.
“We don’t have enough money to do the entire state yet, but that was the intent,” Creekmore said.
Rep. Creekmore sought $6 million to $7 million through a vaping tax, but since the money is coming from the state’s general fund, only $1 million was secured. Creekmore said he plans to bring the matter back up in the 2024 legislative session and feels if that first round is successful, more funding can be found.
Currently, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health is using the $1 million to develop curriculum schools will use to inform students about drug use and fentanyl. Formation of that curriculum involves task force hearings, the most recent of which was held back in September of this year, said MSDH Executive Director Wendy Bailey.
The task force included representatives from various fields, such as higher education, law enforcement and mental health professionals. Input will also be gathered from educators, family and friends of those who have someone in recovery, and even those who experienced an overdose firsthand, Bailey said. And since the material will be geared toward children, Bailey plans to include students.
“A lot of times we think we are reaching kids, but we want to ensure the information is being relayed to the audience, so they should be part of the process to pick the curriculum,” Bailey said. “I feel strongly that we have to include the voice of the people who will absorb the information.”
Curriculum for the students is expected to be in the hands of teachers at pilot schools before the end of this school year.
As more funding is appropriated, the program will branch out to a mass media advertising campaign. Those first advertising campaigns will focus on areas of the state with the most overdose cases.
Brett Montague, Chief Executive Officer for End It For Good, supports the efforts to proactively lower overdose rates, such as House Bill 231, to provide factual information about the dangers of opioids.
End It For Good was founded in 2019 with the mission of advocating for methods of ending drug abuse and addiction that do not include the criminal justice system. Instead, its members champion methods such as treating addiction as a health condition and using medical treatment.
“We have a real problem on our hands and this bill makes an attempt to engage it in honest education,” Montague said.
Today, one out of every two households is touched by drug addiction, Montague said. Instead of putting them in jail, he suggests providing love, compassion and care so they stay connected to family.