In this episode of Real Talk, KJK Student Defense Attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler are joined by Dr. Beth Weinstock. She is a poet and physician, but foremost a mother of four whose eldest son Eli was murdered in March of 2021 when he unintentionally ingested fentanyl. With her daughter Oliva, they co-founded BirdieLight with a focus on educating students and their parents on the danger of fentanyl. The conversation includes how drug use extends beyond just partying, the stigma around the topic of students using drugs, and how any student can save lives.
Links Mentioned In the Show:
- What are the dangers college students experience when experimenting with drugs and alcohol? (0:34)
- How a personal tragedy inspired the creation of the BirdieLight organization. (01:52)
- How BirdieLight has created enormous momentum in its mission. (03:21)
- What is the common misconception of fentanyl that leads to parents underestimating its accessibility? (04:27)
- How did fentanyl rise to become such a popular drug? (05:05)
- How even stress and anxiety can indirectly lead to a student’s involvement in fentanyl (06:53)
- What does BirdieLight do to bring young adults “closer to safe”? (09:09)
- How Dr. Weinstock combats the stigma when shedding light on the reality of fentanyl cases. (11:38)
- Is BirdieLight having an impact? (14:19)
- Why high schools are pushing back on BirdieLight’s message (16:48)
- Telling kids to, “just say no,” isn’t going to cut it (17:11)
- What role does the rampant mental health crisis play in the rise of drug use? (19:21)
- How students can protect themselves and their friends using test strips to test for fentanyl (21:53)
- Why carrying Narcan can save lives (23:35)
- The serendipitous origin of the name BirdieLight (28:47)
Susan Stone: Welcome back to Real Talk with Susan Stone and Kristina Supler. We’re full-time moms and attorneys bringing our student defense legal practice to life with real conversations. Today’s topic is really going to be a very emotional topic today. We’re here to talk about the fentanyl problem that is really impacting the health, welfare, and lives of students across the country, students and adults.
But our practice focuses on what’s happening with all students.
Kristina Supler: Susan, over the years, in our cases, we’ve represented students across the country. And I think we regularly see that particularly college students experimenting with drugs and alcohol it goes hand in hand. And while some students, I don’t know, I guess can handle it.
I think we also see a lot of students who really struggle with the substance abuse and don’t recognize all the dangers that can go hand in hand with ingesting various substances. And I think in particular, one thing that we regularly see is sexual assault cases.
Susan Stone: Correct. We see, and we’ve talked about this on our podcast, a real uptick in mental health issues.
And I don’t want to say every case cause that’s not accurate, but I think we can fairly say that most cases that we deal with, whether it’s about sexual assault or any other form of student misconduct, somewhere in the picture is a use of, or misuse of alcohol or drugs.
Kristina Supler: We hear often from the students we work with that sometimes there’s substance use or experimentation with drugs, for numbing and students just exploring life. And that’s really what brings us to our topic and our speaker today. So Susan, why don’t you do the introduction.
Susan Stone: We’re here with Dr. Beth Weinstock who created an organization called BirdieLight to spread awareness about fentanyl use and this crisis that we have of students dying from the use of fentanyl. Dr. Weinstock, welcome to our show. Can you please just highlight what led to you creating your organization?
Dr. Weinstock: Sure. Thanks. And thank you so much for having me on your podcast today. I live in Columbus, Ohio. And I’m a mother and a physician. I have four children. My second oldest child, Eli Weinstock was a sophomore at American university.
And on March 3rd, 2021 He took or experimented with some substance a pill or a powder. We’re not sure. And he collapsed and died in his off-campus apartment in Washington DC.
Susan Stone: I’m so sorry. Really.
Dr. Weinstock: Thank you. Thank you. He was not struggling with addiction. He was, you know what? Our organization now likes to call an experimental or recreational substance user.
We were devastated. There’s really not a lot of words to really explain what happened in my family. But six months later my daughter, Olivia, and I she’s 22, and a recent college graduate decided to start an organization called BirdieLight. And the purpose of our organization is real simple.
We just get in front of young adults, age 15 to 25, and parents, and we educate on the dangers of fentanyl; where it’s found; how to avoid it; how to test for it. We are now four months old and the momentum is enormous. We really have found a niche and a real need in this crisis in our country.
And, we aim to educate every young person in America about this crisis.
Kristina Supler: I think for a while now, families have heard on the news, stories about the opioid epidemic. And there have been many stories about fentanyl and it’s dangers. However, I know Susan and I from the conversations we have with parents, it’s pretty interesting how many parents don’t know what fentanyl is. Or just have a belief that only certain populations would face the dangers posed by fentanyls.
Oh, it would never touch my child’s life. Beth, can you speak to what parents should know about fentanyl and why it’s so dangerous?
Dr. Weinstock: Absolutely. So I think 10 years ago that maybe that misconception would have some truth to it. That 10 years ago, fentanyl was mostly found in heroin and mixed with heroin there are lots of
people addicted to heroin who would periodically get fentanyl in their drug supply. And as time went on more and more fentanyl was found in heroin and now nearly all heroin has fentanyl in it. As a parent, it’s easy to say that happens over there. That’s not my kid. That’s really a hardcore addiction situation that is not touching my family.
Well, what happened about maybe three years ago is that you started to see fentanyl infiltrating the drug landscape and in so many other ways. So you started to see it in methamphetamine. And then methamphetamine overdoses well, they’re called methamphetamine overdoses, but they’re actually fentanyl poisoning.
Those started to increase. And then soon after that, you started to see it in counterfeit pills that were labeled as oxycodone, hydrocodone Xanax, Adderall, and none of these pills were real. They weren’t exactly what they said they were, but they were fake pressed pills that had fentanyl in them.
And that only started a few years ago. And that coincided of course, with the start of the COVID pandemic. So it didn’t really hit any parent or a student’s radar that this was happening because it was happening in real time with the COVID pandemic. And so all of a sudden you’re hearing of these young, healthy individuals dying, who didn’t have a substance abuse problem who weren’t using heroin.
And, we’re just now catching up. And a lot of parents don’t know this information.
Susan Stone: When we think about recreational use of drugs in college or high school, I have to be honest with you. I still think of alcohol and marijuana. And can you talk about what are the other drugs that students are experimenting with that we, as parents should say, we know you could go a party and you might encounter acts because I guess I don’t think of Xanax or Adderall as a recreational drug. And we have cases where that’s come up. But could you speak to what’s really happening at parties.
Dr. Weinstock: Well, I think there’s two ways to talk about that.
One is not at parties. So for example, if a student, particularly a college student wants to stay up all night and study. That student might ask a friend for an Adderall to be able to do that. That stimulant effect that they’re looking for. So that’s not necessarily a party drug. But what might happen is that student might say, Hey, do you have an Adderall I can use, but it’s not really an Adderall.
It was pressed in some guy’s basement to look like an Adderall. And it has some fentanyl in it. The other part of that might be the Xanax, the fake Xanax that, a student’s struggling with anxiety and wants to get some Xanax off the internet or through Snapchat or on Tik Tok. And they get a Xanax not to party really, but just to manage some anxiety.
So that’s that environment. But if you go to parties now, I mean, this is the word on the street. I don’t have real numbers to back this up, but my understanding is that cocaine has made a huge comeback. It’s not at the level at, as it was in the crazy 1980s, but it’s here. And lots of kids are experimenting with cocaine.
So all of those situations are spots where a kid could be poisoned by fentanyl.
Kristina Supler: I think it’s interesting. The comment you’ve just made the example with Adderall, for example, and students who are up late studying, finishing a paper, seeking that stimulant effect. And I think it’s important for parents to recognize that because so often parents have the mindset that my child would never fill in the blank. But in reality, the dangers of fentanyl, aren’t just tied to recreational drug use. It can be students using drugs for other reasons that have nothing to do with being at a party and being social. So thank you. I think that was a really poignant example.
Tell us, if you could please, a little bit, from what I understand about BirdieLights, the goal of the organization is harm reduction and helping keep young adults safe. And so tell us more about what BirdieLight does to get closer to safe.
Dr. Weinstock: Yeah. And thank you for using that phrase. We like to repeat it many times closer to safe. Because we know that inherent in the act of taking a pill or using cocaine, you’re never a hundred percent safe.
There’s risk inherent in any drug experimentation. So we tell students we want to move you closer to safe by number one, our education. We talk about fentanyl in a real sort of in the weeds way. We talk about how it’s found in cocaine and what pressed pills look like and what to do if you’re going to use ecstasy at an outdoor music concert. I mean, we really get in the weeds with this.
Then we talk about what fentanyl does to your body and how it can be reversed by Narcan. Because it is an opioid. It’s a synthetic opioid but it’s still an opioid. And then lastly, we talk about fentanyl test strips and we pass them out to students and to parents. And what we do is we teach them how to use the test strip.
And we talk about how to use it with each type of drug. And then they leave wherever we are in front of them. Speaking, we leave them with test strips or information on how to get them.
Susan Stone: I want to circle back to something that Kristina brought up. My child would never, and that really resonates with both of us because what you wouldn’t know, Dr. Weinstock is that we travel all around the country, talking about sexual assault and prevention of sexual assault. We actually hear it from both sides. We hear, parents tell us my son would never violate issues of consent. We hear us parents of daughters saying my daughter would never put herself in a position.
And we’ve had a lot of pushback over the years in our endeavor to say that we deal with this every day. How do you at BirdieLight deal with the blinder issue or the, just the prevailing attitude out there that, oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. That must have happened to you. I’m going to put my head under a rock because it couldn’t happen to me cause that dissonance
Kristina Supler: Every day we hear it.
Susan Stone: Every day we hear it. And it’s so hard for us to be we’ve changed our talk a million times and we still run against that same wall.
Dr. Weinstock: I love that question. And there’s different ways in which we’ve run up against that pushback. One of which is I find that when I talk to people about Eli, and as soon as I bring up the word fentanyl, There’s a stigma.
Right? And so the assumption is that Eli struggled with substance abuse and opioid substance use disorder. And that would never happen to my kid.
The first thing I try to do is to talk about fentanyl in a way that reduces that stigma. I don’t know if I could ever get rid of it completely. But I try to stress to parents particularly about the numbers. And I always use comparisons because it works. I tell people, at the height of the aids epidemic and the worst year of the aids epidemic, we lost 50,000 people to HIV just last year alone. In 12 months, we lost a hundred thousand people to opioids. Over three quarters of which were due to fentanyl.
Okay. So I try to do comparisons. I say, on the entire Vietnam war Memorial wall in Washington, DC, there’s about 50,000 names for an entire war. And so what I try to stress is that this is not a substance use disorder problem. This is an American problem. And it’s going to affect you one way or the other.
You’re going to know someone and God forbid it ever happens to you. I never thought it would happen to me. But we all know someone who’s been touched by this. So I try to reduce stigma initially. And then I also try to quote things. I try to tell parents, listen, I’ve been to schools and I’ve talked to students, college students, particularly, and I asked them, do you know someone, or have you seen someone trying cocaine? Or have you yourself tried cocaine? And one out of three kids say yes to those answers.
I’m not saying one out of three are using. I’m saying that they’ve been near or have seen cocaine. So one out of three. So we’re looking at an opportunity, not just to educate kids who may never use drugs, but also to educate the ones who are using. So if a parent says to me, my kid would never, I say, but your kid might never, but your kid might be in a room where they could save a life.
It might be in a room where they see a pill or some powder, and they could say, Hey, wait guys, before you do that, let’s test it. So that I think that reaches parents. If their kid can be the one that saves a life.
Kristina Supler: The idea is students of all ages, perhaps being in a setting and even if the student him or herself, doesn’t experiment with substances at all, this idea that you’ve mentioned about seeing others who are engaging in snorting cocaine, for example, it’s just sad.
Let me ask you, I wonder because teenagers have developing brains, teenagers can be spontaneous. Especially boys often we see them with ADHD after hearing the message of BirdieLights, our young adults or students really are they pulling out the test strips? Do they actually think to use them before injecting, snorting, consuming any type of drug?
Dr. Weinstock: Well, that data on the ground is hard to gather and us being relatively new, we don’t have large numbers just yet. We have anecdotal reports. We do know that, for girls who were about to use ecstasy at a music concert, did use our strips and found fentanyl and threw their drugs away. I do know that some boys that live on campus at OSU called me and said, can you bring us some strips because we’re going to do Coke.
And I brought it to them. I do know that we do surveys to every group we speak to. And the students always say, as they’re leaving, they do our anonymous survey and say that they plan to change their behavior based on what we’ve told them. But the data gathering is hard. On our strips, we have a QR code that says.
In a really like a pleading way. If you use this strip, please fill out our survey because we need to know if what we’re doing is working. And that data is real small. It’s rare that a college student would stop and fill out a survey as they’re about to test or use drugs.
But over time we hope to gather more and more data in the moment. You know, just anecdotally I can only speak to the students we’ve spoken to. And the truth is they’re scared. They know that this landscape is a minefield and they’re scared and they want our strips. They want our education.
Are we going to reach everyone and have them change their behavior? Probably not. But piecemeal, we hope to go one by one. Save as many lives as we can.
Susan Stone: Have you received any push back? I’m thinking about your story, about someone from OSU calling you asking for a strip, because they’re doing cocaine saying that rather than giving them the strip, you should have said, don’t do the cocaine.
Dr. Weinstock: I haven’t received pushback in that scenario because I’m dealing one-on-one with the young adults. But I’ve received a little pushback from high schools and high school administration. In the sense of, asking me, how do we tell kids just say no to drugs at the same time, we’re telling them how to test their drugs.
My only answer really is that the numbers don’t lie. You know, data doesn’t lie. And if this many kids between the age of 15 and 24 are dying, then our message isn’t working. Our message of just say no to drugs is not working. There are lives being lost and I try to point out to administrators that I can tell young adults not to use drugs because of the inherent risk.
And I can tell them Eli’s story. I had the biggest risk, the biggest loss. And I can say, this is what happened. My son also received the message for years of just say no to drugs. So the numbers don’t lie. And I know that’s one of the fears of high schools that we’re sort of giving a mixed message. But I think it’s okay to give both of those messages in parallel.
Susan Stone: We work a lot in parallel. Because our practice primarily focuses on sex issues. What are you going to do? Tell kids not to have sex in college? And Christina, how many times do we deal with kids who are high and having intercourse? Or drunk and then saying they were incapacitated.
Kristina Supler: Yeah, I think that’s actually a very good analogy, Susan, that might hit some of our listeners is frankly bizarre. But I think the reality is with substance abuse or sexual activity, we have good feedback from our practical experiences in our cases. Beth, as you point out, look at the data and the numbers and fentanyl.
Don’t do it that strict prohibitive message just doesn’t seem to be working. And so the question is, what is the message that we should be advancing to our kids to help keep them safer? I suspect many of our parents and listeners might really say, wait a minute, this BirdieLight, is it in fact promoting drug use? But I think it’s really important that parents think, really think about what your messages Beth at BirdieLight, and then also think about their own children and their own life experiences.
And just reflect. And I like the idea of the language getting closer to safe. Because I think it’s a concept that has application to so many different issues that high schoolers, college students, young adults face.
Susan Stone: My thought is that we’re also facing a mental health epidemic that we’ve never seen. The surgeon general just put out an advisory that we are in a national health crisis when it comes to mental health.
And I guess Dr. Weinstock, I would like an opinion as to our students with mental health issues, not properly being medicated. And would that alleviate a need for students to turn to something like street xanax. If their anxiety and depression were being addressed properly by more healthcare practitioners.
Dr. Weinstock: Absolutely. I, I work in healthcare. So I see the deficits when it comes to mental health support access to care. And of course it’s geographic, or it depends what area of the country you’re in. Or if you live near a big medical center wait lists are so long right now. So we have an access to care problem.
And obviously this has been an ongoing debate. But we have a health insurance problem in our country. So this mental health crisis Is a big one to tackle. But I do want to point out though that I do not advocate in any sense that a young adult take a medicine or a pill that they weren’t prescribed such as a Xanax and Adderall, a Percocet, hydrocodone, oxycodone.
There’s no way that that’s a good idea. As we know, you should only take pills that have been prescribed to you and put in a bottle by a pharmacist. However, I want to point out that an intelligent kid can learn either through their own parents’ use of pharmaceuticals or on the internet that a person who takes a Xanax or an Adderall or a hydrocodone or oxycodone is not going to die.
So let’s say I’m 15 and I’m so anxious. I can’t go to school in the morning and my friend gives me a Xanax they got off the internet. You can research that online and learn for yourself that if I take a Xanax, I’m not going to die. That’s the difference is that we don’t just have a, sort of a recreational drug use opioid problem.
This is a poisoning problem. So what alarms me about this situation is that we can solve the mental health crisis in incremental doses, which is, you know such a big thing to tackle. But if you’re the risk is so vast. If you’re just going to take what you assume to be illegal prescription pill, that by itself has never killed anyone.
And you’re going to die from that. I mean, that is a risk model that is, is catastrophic, right? So we’re not just dealing with an opioid substance use crisis in our country or a mental health crisis. We’re dealing with a poisoning crisis. That’s what the alarming thing.
Kristina Supler: Poisoning referring to the fentanyl. Tell us a little bit how the test strips work in conjunction with a substance that might be a pill or something that’s snorted. How does one use these test strips?
Susan Stone: And does it work with injectable drugs?
Dr. Weinstock: It will. It will work with anything that is in liquid. So basically you have to take a part of the cocaine you’re about to use and dissolve it in a little shot glass size a container of water. And you can dissolve it and test it.
There’s very specific instructions. For example, if you have a bag of cocaine, you should test it multiple times before you use it because the fentanyl can be distributed in different parts of the bag. If you’re about to take a pill, you can dissolve the pill in that water and test it with the strip and then you actually drink the water.
You know, because it’s a pill it’s going to hit your stomach soon anyways, so it’s okay to drink it. That way you test the whole pill and not just a segment of it. And then you can also, for example, if you’re cooking injectable drugs, you can take some residue off the cooker and put some water on it and test that.
So there’s very different instructions for each drug. And when I speak to students I go into those specifics. For example, I haven’t gotten in front of a big high school system yet, and there’s some pushback there on discussion of the test strips in detail. So perhaps for a high school audience, I wouldn’t get into details on how to test.
Cooker, the residue on your cooker, there, you have to know your audience. So I tailor what I speak to regarding what group I’m in front of. Right now I mostly speak to high school students in small private groups rather than in front of a big auditorium.
Susan Stone: Well, we’d quite the team. You talk about drugs and we would talk about sex. I think we just need a musician to talk about rock and roll trifecta. What about Narcan? I have to tell you, I asked Christina this morning. My vision of Narcan was from like bad seventies movies of someone, ODing and them like plugging an epi pen. Is that still what it is?
Or has it evolved?
Dr. Weinstock: Oh, so much Narcan is so widespread now and so easily used it’s it’s a nasal spray. At least the kind you would get for a use out in the community. It’s an easily used nasal spray.
Susan Stone: That’s just what Kristine just said my go-to source for everything is my law partner.
Kristina Supler: And correct me if I’m wrong.
Just, I think this is useful information for our listeners as well. Most communities have public health departments where one can obtain Narcan for free, correct? Or is that something that only you don’t have to be an EMS worker or law enforcement to have narcan, right?
Dr. Weinstock: No. No, you can get it in any pharmacy without a prescription.
It’s a great act of citizenry to carry Narcan with you. And a lot of college students do that. They pass out Narcan on college campuses. And you’ll talk to some students who say, well, I carry Narcan. I don’t use any substances. But I carry it with me just in case. It’s really a lifesaving tool.
And if you’re going to be at a party where people are using drugs, I would talk to all of your kids. Have Narcan, know where it is. And one of our goals with BirdieLight is to make Narcan and fentanyl test strips so commonplace that it just seems like it’s the first aid kit in the, hallway closet.
You always know where the test strips and the Narcan are. And if every college campus, every dorm, every fraternity and sorority had these two tools just sitting there for use. And it was common conversation to learn how to use them. The lot number of lives that would be saved would be remarkable.
Susan Stone: We had the privilege of watching your interview with Jake Tapper.
You did an amazing job, Dr. Weinstock. We learned that Kratom was also found in Eli’s body. I did. I had confess, I didn’t know what that was. Can you discuss that? Because my understanding when I did a little bit of research is that it’s a legal substance.
Dr. Weinstock: It is yeah. Kratom is an herbal supplement.
That’s legal and Eli had two substances in his system. One was Kratom and one was fentanyl. I don’t know any more than that. So for example, I try not to get too sidetracked on the Kratom issue because the number of people that die from Kratom ingestion and fentanyl is minuscule. And so really focusing on that would take a lot of attention away from the vaster crisis, which really has not a lot to do with fentanyl. But either Eli took some Kratom that someone along the way had laced with fentanyl.
Or Eli was given a pill that he thought was something else. Either a Xanax or whatever he thought it was. And instead of having those ingredients in it, it had Kratom and fentanyl in it. But he, with his pathology only had two substances in his body create them and fentanyl. But we just don’t know the vehicle as to how he ingested it.
Susan Stone: Well, that was my thought. Are people putting fentanyl in vitamins or something else?
Kristina Supler: I was actually just thinking as I was listening. I think we, we represent a lot of college athletes and at various times we’ve had students who have hit different bumps in the road with the student disciplinary proceedings because of essentially bodybuilding drugs and stuff that has been ordered off the internet from overseas.
And they think they’re getting one thing, but it’s a powder and who knows what’s in it? Would these test strips, perhaps be a good idea to use with something like some sort of supplements that’s ordered off the internet or something like that. Again, just to make sure that it’s not poison.
Susan Stone: We were mind melding there.
Cause we had the same question at the same time.
Dr. Weinstock: There’s no data or research to say that that would be useful. It’s not something that’s been reported. That bodybuilding supplements would have fentanyl in them. I would say that anytime you order something and you’re not real clear on where it’s coming from or who’s regulating it. There’s always some inherent risk.
One of the problems would be, for example, if you’ve got a bodybuilding powder and it was a jar, like a large jar is how would you test it? Fentanyl is lethal. It’s such a small dose. And so in a large jar of powder protein supplement, you would have to check the entire jar. And that would take lots of strips, so I guess I can’t speak to it because it’s not an issue that’s come up or something that’s ever been recommended.
Kristina Supler: I read a grain of fentanyl. That’s like a grain of sand can be lethal. Is that correct?
Dr. Weinstock: Well, it’s a little more than that. Like if you took a salt shaker and put enough salt in your hand to fill the very center indentation, they say 12 to 15 grains of salt that’s a lethal dose for most people.
The lethal dose is a little different if you’re accustomed to opioids. If you take them frequently.
Kristina Supler: Oh, that’s interesting.
Dr. Weinstock: Yeah.
Susan Stone: Have a quick question about the name BirdieLight. We couldn’t help but notice that Eli’s name is almost in the middle. We see the Eli. How did you arrive at that name?
Dr. Weinstock: Well, we came up with some other like generic sounding names, like save one life and that kind of thing. But we wanted it to be more personal. And Eli’s buddies in eighth grade they had a band of boys that ran around and they called themselves The Birdies. I don’t know the origin of that. But it was always very cute.
And then at his Memorial service, a bunch of those boys men now wrote a letters on the tables we had spread in our backyard. They wrote letters to birdie. So we thought we would use that. And also at the same time, I started thinking about a bird and the Canary in the coal mine concept of how the Canary went down to, to test the air first in a coal mine.
And, and I thought of that as the test strip, you know, the Canary in the coal mine. Our logo has a yellow bird with a canary, I’m sorry, a miner’s lamp on its head. And so we called it BirdieLight and I’m not really making this up at all, is that we looked at BirdieLight after we wrote it down. And then we said, wait a minute.
Eli’s name is in the middle of it. And so it was just serendipitous. We had a couple of people say, you should change your name because BirdieLight doesn’t say what you’re doing. Yelp and Uber’s name, doesn’t say what they’re doing either. But the name means a lot to us.
Susan Stone: To our listeners out there, I who can’t see my face, I think that the hair on the back of my neck was just raised and I I’m stopping some tears. That is stunning. And don’t you change that name.
Kristina Supler: I don’t get a vote, but if I did that is really compelling.
Susan Stone: Thank you so much. This is really been incredibly informative. And I think that you’ve shared a lot of really important information that our listeners can reflect on and then have conversations with their own children. So thank you so much.
And to our listeners, thank you for listening to Real Talk with Susan and Kristina. If you enjoyed this episode, please do subscribe to our show so that you never miss an episode. And leave us a review so that others can find the content we share here.
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