4 Investigates: Fentanyl addiction in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The illusion of escape is leading even the youngest New Mexicans down a dark, dangerous path.

Fentanyl is a deadly opiate. It’s cheap and plentiful all over the state of New Mexico.

“I’m seeing them recover 8,000, 10,000, 100,000 pills, so there is a huge explosion,” said Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina.

Fentanyl is a hundred times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“For starters, it’s very tragic. It’s hard,” said Captain Melvin Martinez with Albuquerque Fire Rescue.

Children, teens and young adults are paying the ultimate price.

“No one wants to admit they’re an addict when they’re in high school,” said Trent Varner, a young adult in addiction recovery. “That was hard for me to do.”

The second time around, Varner said treatment is easier to adjust to.

“I really do have a second chance,” said Varner.

This could be his last shot. Varner grew up in Hobbs.

“I started racing motor cross when I was five, so that was fun,” he said. “I played baseball, football growing up, kind of fell off of it, but, I mean, I was an active kid.”

He stayed active.

“I was the Hobbs Eagle mascot in high school my sophomore year,” Varner said.

But addiction was already setting in.

“It’s affecting everybody. It doesn’t matter what your social class is. It doesn’t matter what your background is,” said Jennifer Weiss-Burke, executive director of Serenity Mesa Recovery Center. “Everybody, I think, has hurts and hang-ups that they’re dealing with – when you find a pill that can take that away, any and everyone is vulnerable.”

Serenity Mesa is one of the state’s only in-patient treatment options for teens and young adults. With fentanyl, her waiting list has grown. The faces she sees keep getting younger.

“It’s very frustrating, it’s scary to me,” Weiss-Burke said. “Kids who are 14 and 15 years old, even 16 and 17 years old, they’re not getting a chance to be teenagers and they’re dealing with a drug that could kill them.”

In 2017, one New Mexican younger than 24 died of a fentanyl overdose. Just a few years later, that number shot up to 64. There’s a similar rise in emergency room visits. (Data can be found at the bottom of this story.)

“The reality is, it’s no longer the person in the back of the playground selling drugs to kids,” said Dr. John Pederson, Children’s Program medical director with Presbyterian Hospital. “It’s over the internet. It’s through every social media platform and that’s where a lot of these exposures are coming from.”

Dr. Pederson said there is not one age group not impacted by the fentanyl crisis.

“We have kids as young as elementary school age who are experimenting with drugs, and so many drugs now are laced with fentanyl. Kids who may think they are using one thing, but are in fact getting exposed to fentanyl,” Dr. Pederson said.

“I think everyone is concerned. Everyone notices that this a crisis that is getting worse,” said AFR Captain Martinez.

Martinez said AFR responds to around 10 overdoses, every day, handing out what they call “leave behind kits.” Those kits include treatment options, fentanyl test strips and Narcan – an overdose reversal drug that could be the difference in life or death.

“It allows them to be prepared for next time,” said Captain Martinez.

“Fentanyl is really tough to kick,” said Weiss-Burke. “It’s both their physical being and then their mind. You know, their mind is telling you, ‘I need this drug, I need this drug, I need this drug,’ and your body is saying, ‘I need this drug, I need this drug, I need this drug,’ and the longer you go without using, your body stops craving it, but then every time something happens your mind is telling you, ‘oh, you’re stressed? I’ve got a solution for that.’”

Growing up in Hobbs, it was the escape that pulled Trent Varner in. First with marijuana, then Xanax, and – at just 16 years old – fentanyl.

He managed to graduate high school, but his addiction took over.

KOB 4 asked him how much he was using every day.

“Um, honestly, as much as I could get. Sometimes that might be ten, sometimes that might be up to 30 pills,” he said.

We asked him how long it would take him to start withdrawing after using.

“When it was bad, probably about six, six to eight hours. That’s why I would always keep a couple in the morning, for in the morning. So that wouldn’t happen,” said Varner.

He’d kick fentanyl, then get sucked back into using. Hobbs police arrested him in January.

“I was sick, I was withdrawing and I kind of just went for a walk, and then on that walk, I decided I was going to find a way to get money. Eventually, I robbed a Taco Bell that night,” he said.

It’s what landed him back at Serenity Mesa after successfully completing the program when he was 17 years old.

It’s the only thing standing between freedom and prison.

“In the last couple weeks I have been advised of three separate overdoses involving high school kids off of fentanyl,” said APD Chief Medina.

“I think prevention is key,” said Weiss-Burke.

Varner said addiction of any kind has tell-tale signs.

“I could be talking to you and we could be having a conversation and I would just start nodding off right now, because I’m high,” he said.

The reality of addiction is one that’s very different than the false sense of relief that pill provides. Varner said it’s a relentless cycle of taking, until there’s nothing left.

“It’s not worth everything, you know what I mean. I had so many goals and dreams and when you’re using, they just all fall out the window,” he said.

This time around Varner is looking forward to the future, to redemption. Taking recovery, one day at a time.

Here’s a list of resources for folks interested in getting help:

Emergency Room Visits All ages
2021 – Fentanyl/synthetic opioids made up around 23% of all overdose emergency visits
2022 – Fentanyl/synthetic opioids made up almost 50% of all overdose emergency visits

Emergency Room Visits Age 24 and under
2017 – 21
2018 – 22
2019 – 29
2020 – 51
2021 – 76
2022 – 101

In 2021, there were 13 fentanyl-related overdose emergency room visits for children ages 0-4, three fentanyl-related visits for children 5-14 and 60 hospitalizations for youth 15-24.

In 2022, there were 10 fentanyl-related overdose emergency room visits for children ages 0-4, there was one fentanyl-related visit for children 5-14, and 90 hospitalizations for youth 15-24.

Fentanyl-related deaths Age 24 and under
2017 – 1
2018 – 15
2019 – 21
2020 – 40
2021 – 64
2022 – 37

*2022 data is incomplete