A mother who tragically lost her teenage son to fentanyl poisoning is speaking out about the opioid crisis among the nation’s youth. Federal data shows that among 10- to 19-year-olds, fentanyl deaths rose 182% from 2019 to 2021.

“These days, experimenting with drugs is deadly,” said Janet Hehl, mother of Alec Pierce Hoffman. 

“The cause of Alec’s death was, in fact, fentanyl poisoning. I know that he took a pill, I don’t know how he got it or what he thought it was,” Hehl told The Daily Signal in an April interview. “I found him unresponsive in his room in the afternoon after speaking to him that morning and did not suspect anything abnormal.”  

Hoffman was 17 years old when he died in 2022. He was a competitive cross-country runner, humorous teenager, and student at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas.  

Hehl says she wishes society would focus on increased education around fentanyl and that the law would reflect greater penalties for drug dealers. “We need to make stronger efforts to combat the fentanyl attack,” she said.

According to the latest research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses took the lives of more than 80,000 individuals in 2021, with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl accounting for 88% of the deaths. And according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45 is fentanyl overdose. 

“Fentanyl made a cameo appearance in the United States late in the 1970s, when it was known as ‘China White.’ Now, however, it has become the principal villain responsible for America’s overdoses and fatalities,” Paul Larkin, a senior legal research fellow in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in a legal memorandum. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news and commentary outlet.) 

“China and Mexico are responsible for the influx of fentanyl because they work together to ship, produce, and smuggle it across the border,” Larkin explained. “Fentanyl and its analogues are the principal threat because they are far more potent than heroin, making them easier to smuggle,” he added. 

“You would not believe how many parents I’ve encountered who have lost a child the same way,” Hehl said. “Every support group I’ve attended, every group I’ve joined on social media, I always encounter someone else who lost a child to fentanyl poisoning.”  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among people aged 10 to 19 years, the median monthly rates of fentanyl-induced deaths rose 182% from December 2019 to December 2021.  

“The problem is that fentanyl is 10-20 times as potent as heroin—or 50-100 times as powerful as morphine,” Larkin said about the fatal nature of the drug in an email to The Daily Signal. 

In his publication, “The Scourge of Illicit Fentanyl,” Larkin wrote that “heroin use had never been a particularly safe pastime, but once fentanyl appeared, users began dropping like flies.” 

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it usually takes only two milligrams, or 0.002 grams of fentanyl to have fatal results on the consumer.  

“Experimenting with drugs is not a new thing, but these days, it is much more deadly,” Hehl said. “If you get a pill from an unknown source, chances are it has fentanyl in it. And depending on the person and the amount, it could very likely end in death.”  

This could likely be because “fentanyl is cheaper to produce, smuggle, and distribute than heroin,” Larkin said, making it more profitable for drug dealers.  

In March 2023, the medicine naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, was made available to the public over the counter after its synthetization in 1961. It works to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose such as those with fentanyl by attaching to opioid receptors, the proteins inside a cell or on its surface that receive signals and are responsible for producing the pain-relieving properties of opioids. Narcan reverses and blocks the opioid’s effects on the body.  

However, critics are not sold on Narcan being the solution to the United States’ fentanyl death rates. 

“It can take multiple doses of Narcan to offset a fentanyl OD [overdose]. Hospitals have that type of supply, but EMS [emergency services] personnel might not, and very few individuals will,” Larkin pointed out in an email to The Daily Signal.  

The legal expert said that when there is a safety net available, like when individuals know that they have Narcan available in case they overdose, “some people will take risks they wouldn’t. … Economists call that the ‘moral hazard problem.’ I like to think of it as playing Russian roulette with more than one round in the cylinder.” 

When asked about her thoughts on Naloxone, Hehl said, “I’m not against it. I support the idea of supplying it at nurse’s stations in all schools. It could save a life. But it’s not the solution.”  

Hehl shared her thoughts as to what might be putting young people on the path toward fentanyl exposure, beginning with the modern music industry. 

“Popular music, specifically rap music, is glorifying drug use, and it’s having an impact on our kids. I randomly chose three songs from Alec’s playlist and all of them had drug references. Drug use is depicted as casual and habitual,” Hehl said. 

She shared some lyrics from multiple tracks by American rapper and record producer LUCKI: “Pop another pink … codeine on the bus … All this xan [Xanax] in my system … I would try to get off it, but I’m feelin’ too lazy.”  

Hehl concluded, “We need to address the opioid epidemic. Find out why people are taking opioids and offer other alternatives. There is something they are looking for—escaping, feeling relaxed, etc. Let’s offer and encourage safe alternatives for kids and adults.” 

“Therapy, therapeutic experiences, different types of extracurricular programs in schools and work. Activities that promote physical and mental well-being,” she said. 

As more parents grapple with the same reality that Hehl faces, Larkin offered, “We need to educate people about fentanyl’s danger, persuade them not to run the risks it poses, and stop the sale of poison to our fellow citizens.”  

Editor’s note: The author of this article, Mary Elise Cosgray, was friends with Alec Hoffman.