Chemicals of Concern: Expert Speaks in Centralia About Emerging Drugs and Trends


Drug abuse and its consequences have been an issue in this country for decades. But newer, much more potent forms of the drugs many people saw in years past are posing even deadlier dangers to users.

That was the message in a pair of seminars held on Monday at Centralia College’s TransAlta Commons banquet hall where Stephanie Siete, public information officer for Community Bridges, Inc. (CBI) broke down not only the dangers of the drugs but how she sees the makers of them trying to make products more appealing to kids. 

In the morning seminar, around 70 law enforcement officers from local departments as well as local elected representatives were in attendance to listen to Siete.

The deadliest drug on the black market these days is fentanyl, an opioid that’s around 50 times more potent than morphine. Two out of every five pills contain a potentially lethal level that could trigger an overdose; two to three milligrams is enough to trigger respiratory arrest, Siete said. 

And while both youths and adults are overdosing on fentanyl on a daily basis in America, Siete explained that it’s not usually what kids start off with. What they are starting off with has its own set of risks though, including some that are life threatening.

Vaping nicotine is an issue many teachers in school are seeing and having to deal with. Siete stated that before she started doing work involving detox and rehab programs at CBI, she worked with students explaining the dangers of tobacco.

“One thing we said back then 20-something years ago was, ‘Good thing there’s no such thing as liquid nicotine, because one drop could be dangerous enough to kill someone.’ That was 20 years ago and today it’s the number one seller,” Siete said.

Not only is the product much more potent, but it’s being marketed with an incredibly wide variety of flavors. Some packaging is even mimicking cigarette packaging, which Siete said made the product more appealing to kids.

While there’s the danger of  vaping devices malfunctioning and exploding during use, which has caused victims to lose teeth and eyes and suffer severe burns and wounds, the biggest danger kids face from vaping is damaging their still-developing lungs.

Siete shared the story of Daniel Ament, a 17-year-old high school track star from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who in the time span of less than a year went from being a healthy athlete to needing a double lung transplant in order to save his life.

“They were so scarred they didn’t even deflate. It was definitely a different kind of damage than we usually see. This lung was literally solid, as if it was made out of truck-tire rubber,” said Dr. Hassan Nemeh, thoracic surgeon at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, in a Time article about Ament’s surgery.

Siete added that Ament is far from the only teenager who’s needed life-saving surgery after picking up a vaping habit and added nicotine is highly addictive, so there is more likelihood of repeat use.

The liquid nicotine in the vape cartridges is extremely potent and one Juul pod, a popular brand of disposable vapes, contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

Making the problem even worse, a large number of people between the ages of 13 and 24 are reporting high levels of stress. About 46% rate their stress levels at a seven or higher on a scale of 10 and 84% say one way of coping with that stress is with drug abuse.

After getting hooked on vaping nicotine, some usually begin to search for stronger highs, including abusing the prescriptions many of them get from their doctors. Once those prescriptions have been used up, kids have to turn back to the streets in order to get more.

The suppliers on the streets aren’t selling the safest product, and many kids are now dying off of just one pill containing a lethal dose of fentanyl.

“Deaths among 10- to 14-year-old kids tripled in a year,” Siete said.

And the overdose deaths aren’t just impacting kids, but many adults. Siete stated that opioid overdose deaths have been on the rise for decades but have spiked since the beginning of the COVID pandemic and remained at high levels. According to her research, there were 6,100 overdose deaths in America in 1980 and 107,000 last year.

“2020 is always going to be a standout year because for the rest of our lives people are going to reference that year. I remember sitting on the couch going, ‘Alright where am I not going, what can I not do?’ We all were stressed and had anxiety or were confused and a lot of people chose to deal with it using substances,” Siete said.

Despite being legalized, new issues are arising with marijuana abuse as well, mainly linked to the potency of the drug dramatically increasing much like opioids and nicotine have over the years. Edibles are now sold containing doses of THC as high as 400 milligrams when the average dose prescribed for pain is usually between five and 10 milligrams. They are also being made to look like actual candy being sold in grocery stores.

While overdosing on THC does not cause death, it can cause extreme anxiety and paranoia among many other dangerous side effects. No matter the drug, Siete believes kids shouldn’t be putting any drugs in their bodies, period.

“I do not believe the chemical we’re about to talk about belongs in the body of a child. I don’t think any chemical does. I think we overmedicate kids. I do think there’s an asterisk, some rare cases. If some 15-year-old kid is having 100 seizures a day and CBD seems to work great for him to make the seizures subside that’s great for that 15-year-old but that doesn’t mean all 15-year-olds should be getting high,” Siete said.

While CBD is the non-psychoactive chemical found in marijauna known to have many beneficial side effects, it’s sometimes mixed with THC in marijuana products and most marijuana products are grown to have much more potent levels of THC compared to their CBD levels.

There is a lot of blame to go around for the current problem of so many different kinds of drug abuse going on in America today, including both the drug cartels as well as big pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma that have now had to paid billions in settlements over lawsuits concerning them lying about the addiction risks of the opioids they produced, but Siete said attendees also need to look at themselves.

“They supply it, we demand it. We are a very unique country if we are consuming the majority of the world’s opioid supply,” Siete said.

Among those in attendance was Harry Bhagwandin, who is currently running for the Lewis County District 3 commissioner’s position. While he admitted he’d learned some things from the presentation, he was more concerned with working on possible solutions.

Even where he lives near Salkum, a small, rural community in the central-southern part of the county, he knows people who have been affected by the opioid crisis but is concerned that some people still don’t want to do anything about it.

“They know it’s happening but, ‘it’s your (the drug abuser’s) choice, how is it any different from me, how come I can go to work every day when you just want to be a lazy bum trying to live off of me,’” said Bhagwandin.

As Siete pointed out, many abusers in today’s world are caught while they are young with nicotine vapes being so widely available still, and Bhagwandin hopes that people will focus more on helping people recover from addiction before it’s too late for them.

“Who chooses to be a drug addict? Come on, nobody chooses this, but now there in it, and how do we get them out?” Bhagwandin said.

While he was appreciative of Siete’s presentation, he added that he had seen presentations like these for years.

“You know great, statistics, wonderful. Where are the solutions? None of us know how to solve this problem, but making each other criminals isn’t working either,” said Bhagwandin. “It’s easier to prevent something than it is to fix it after it breaks. We’re beyond that now, it’s broken.”

He believes education on this issue is still important but wants there to be more focus on solutions for those suffering from drug addiction.

“You don’t beat addiction with talking,” he added.