At Coachella, a group of independent volunteers handed out fentanyl test strips and carried the overdose treatment Narcan in an effort to curb overdoses related to the deadly synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
The nonprofit Team Awareness Combatting Overdose, or TACO, was behind the giveaway at the festival, which included performances by Bad Bunny, Blondie, Gorillaz and blink-182, among other acts.
“I will usually just ask them like, ‘Hey, are you interested in potentially having a test strip for testing for fentanyl?’ And people usually know what fentanyl is,” said Hanna Raskin, one of dozens of TACO volunteers.
TACO was founded by several students at the University of Southern California in the wake of several overdose deaths that occurred there in 2019.
Federal data from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics shows that over half of people over the age of 12 have used illicit drugs at least once. TACO and similar groups advocate for harm reduction, an approach that seeks to lower the risks associated with drug use rather than advocating for total abstinence.
Ahead of the annual music festival, Raskin and TACO founder Madeline Hilliard hosted a virtual training session for their ambassadors, teaching them how to detect if common drugs are laced with fentanyl using the test strips.
“Couple grains of salt or sand-worth of fentanyl — it’s a white powder, it’s totally odorless, flavorless, so you can imagine how easily that could get mixed into something like a pill or MDMA or a bag of cocaine that’s also a white powder,” Hilliard said. MDMA is commonly known as ecstasy or molly.
And when people take contaminated drugs, the consequences are often devastating.
In 2022, synthetic opioids like fentanyl were the leading cause for the record number of drug poisonings and overdose deaths in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety alert after lab testing found that 6 out of 10 fentanyl-laced pills contain a potential lethal dose. In 2021, the United States suffered more deaths related to fentanyl than gun- and auto-related deaths combined, according to the CDC. In the 12-month period ending in October 2021, the agency reported that more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses; 66% of those deaths were related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Riverside County, where Coachella took place over two weekends, saw the growing crisis kill nearly 500 residents last year, when a staggering 6.2 million fentanyl pills were seized there by the sheriff’s narcotics division, according to a press release from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office.
“[Test strips are] not 100% effective, but they are highly effective from what we’ve seen. When people use fentanyl test strips immediately, they’re now aware that fentanyl is a risk,” Hilliard said at the training.
Hilliard and Raskin also taught volunteers how to spot the telltale signs of an opioid overdose, such as slow breathing, unconsciousness and pinpoint pupils that don’t respond to light.
The nonprofit’s efforts have already saved lives like that of Charlie, a college student who survived an overdose after taking a drug he didn’t know contained fentanyl at a party last year. [Charlie is a pseudonym. The student asked not to be identified with his real name because of privacy concerns.]
“Everyone thinks that, ‘Oh it’s not going to happen to me. How could it be me?’ But it’s when you start becoming careless like that, that it can be you,” Charlie said.
Charlie says he was near death when a quick-thinking friend who had been trained by TACO swiftly administered Narcan.
“He’s alive today because we were able to educate his friends around him, so that when he did overdose, they were prepared to respond,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard said that a TACO volunteer administered Narcan to an unresponsive Coachella attendee exhibiting signs of an overdose who then regained consciousness after the treatment was used.
Raskin believes that everyone who chooses to use recreational drugs should be testing them for fentanyl.
“I want people to know that using drugs does not determine whether or not someone deserves to wake up the next morning. I also think it’s important to understand that if you are using drugs and you want to prevent experiencing an overdose, it’s essential that you test your drugs and also that you carry Narcan,” Raskin said.