As Alaska overdose deaths mount, state leaders launch new education effort

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Heidi Hedberg, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health, speaks at a news conference on Monday about Alaska’s overdose deaths and efforts to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl. With her are Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska and Attorney General Treg Taylor. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

With Alaska’s drug overdose deaths surging, state leaders on Monday kicked off a new campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of the drug that caused most of them: fentanyl.

The new campaign, called “One Pill Can Kill,” is national and spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies. But it has special meaning in Alaska, which last year had a record-high total of overdose deaths, they said.

Preliminary numbers show that 342 Alaskans died from overdoses in 2023, a 40% increase over 2022 totals, according to the state Department of Health. Of the total, 264 – about three-quarters – were from fentanyl, up from 151 fentanyl deaths in 2022, according to the department’s preliminary numbers.

“Alaska is under attack,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said at a news conference held at the Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory in Anchorage.

“This is the largest in Alaska’s history, and it marks a really devastating moment in history,” Heidi Hedberg, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said at the news conference.

Beyond the statistics are personal tragedies.

Sandy Snodgrass, a mother who lost her son in 2021 to a fentanyl overdose, recounted some of the details. “He was only 22 years old and my only child,” she said. “He died within shouting distance of help in a wooded area a short distance from a Wells Fargo drive-through and McDonald’s drive-through on Debarr Road in Anchorage. The devastation of his fentanyl poisoning death has impacted his family, friends and community in ways that I cannot fully describe here today.”

Karen Malcolm-Smith, who lost her son to an opioid overdose in 2017, described how such tragedies reverberate through families and communities.

Karen Malcolm-Smith, whose son died of an opioid overdose in 2017, speaks at a May 6, 2024, news conference about a fentanyl awareness. The news conference was held at the state's crime laboratory in Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Karen Malcolm-Smith, whose son died of an opioid overdose in 2017, speaks at a Monday news conference about a fentanyl awareness. The news conference was held at the state’s crime laboratory in Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“For people like Sandy and I, we will never experience a college graduation, attend a wedding, have grandchildren,” she said. Parents and family members cope with intense grief, depression and other mental health problems that are manifested in problems like divorce, physical health problems, “and unfortunately, we also see suicides,” Malcolm-Smith said.

She established the David Dylan Foundation in her son’s honor to encourage others to seek help for their addiction problems.

Hedberg said public education, including the One Pill Can Kill awareness campaign, is only one part of a multipronged state effort to stop fentanyl deaths.

While the Department of Public Safety works to intercept drugs so that the supply does not reach the public and the Department of Law pursues legal approaches to the problem, the Department of Health’s antiopioid work focuses on harm reduction and treatment as well as on education, Hedberg said.

Last year, she said, the department distributed more than 46,000 antioverdose naloxone kits and over 89,000 fentanyl test strips.

Now the department is preparing to distribute $3.3 million in grants for local, regional and statewide programs for harm reduction and treatment. A request for bids from potential grantees was published last month.

Money for the grants comes from one of the national settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors, a $26 billion settlement struck in 2021 with manufacturer Janssen/Johson & Johnson and three pharmaceutical distributors. The settlement was made final in 2022. Alaska is expected to get $58.5 million over 18 years from it, Hedberg said.

There have been other national opioid settlements to which Alaska is a party since then.

Sandy Snodgrass, who lost her 22-year-old son Bruce to a fentanyl overdose in 2021, listens on May 6, 2024, to Karen Malcolm-Smith speak about the loss of her son in 2017. Snodgrass and Malcolm-Smith were speakers at a news conference on fentanyl education. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sandy Snodgrass, who lost her 22-year-old son Bruce to a fentanyl overdose in 2021, listens on Monday to Karen Malcolm-Smith speak about the loss of her son in 2017. Snodgrass and Malcolm-Smith were speakers at a news conference on fentanyl education. Snodgrass said she will be trying to persuade state lawmakers to pass a bill increasing penalties for drug distribution. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Another part of the state effort is increasing penalties for distributors of fentanyl and other deadly substances.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Attorney General Treg Taylor, who both spoke at the event, pushed for final passage of state legislation, House Bill 66, that would classify as second-degree murder the act of providing a drug to someone who later suffers a fatal overdose.

“Some people may think that’s harsh. But if you apply that to any other aspect of society – somebody cuts the brakes on a car, and someone is killed, somebody doesn’t maintain an airplane, somebody plays with a gun – they all have consequences,” Dunleavy said.

“The known increased risk caused by fentanyl justifies charging them with a homicide,” Taylor said.

The bill passed the House last year and was pending, as of Friday, in the Senate Finance Committee, usually the last committee prior to a floor vote.

The bill would also enhance potential penalties for anyone who surreptitiously drugs an unwitting person, for example, with depressants or tranquilizers that are commonly referred to as “date-rape” drugs.

Snodgrass said she was headed to Juneau this week to lobby for final passage of the bill. She is also working for passage of a bill pending in Congress, called Bruce’s Law after her son, to boost fentanyl education and prevention programs nationally. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced the bill and Sullivan is a cosponsor.

“Both of these laws, along with the One Pill Can Kill campaign introduced here today, will add three powerful tools to the toolbox to bring the fight to fentanyl,” Snodgrass said.