‘Worst drug threat I’ve seen’: Washington’s teen fentanyl overdoses double rate of U.S. average

The fentanyl crisis is the worst drug threat the special agent in charge of the Seattle DEA Office has ever seen, and the rate of deaths caused by the drug is increasing.


KIRO 7 spoke with David Reames, special agent in charge of the Seattle Field Division for the Drug Enforcement Administration, to learn more about the deadly drug and how it’s affecting families across Western Washington, including teenagers.

“This is far and away the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my 26 years as a DEA agent,” he said. “Nothing else is even close to as bad as the fentanyl crisis. Fentanyl for the DEA is our top priority.”

Reames said the number of fentanyl pills seized in Washington by the DEA in 2023 is nearly four times the amount the agency had seized in 2021.

  • 2023: 3,604,408 fentanyl pills seized.
  • 2022: 1,942,514 fentanyl pills seized.
  • 2021: 917,383 fentanyl pills seized.

Washington ranks third across the United States regarding the number of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA, right behind Arizona and California, confirmed the agency.

The DEA Seattle Field Division (which covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho) has also removed the following fatal doses of fentanyl:

  • 2023: 9,304,559.
  • 2022: 7,345,919.
  • 2021: 2,795,725.

“It’s accelerated every year for the last four or five years,” Reames said.

And the rate is not the only thing that’s increasing with this deadly drug. He said the dosage found in the drugs that are being sold is also climbing.

“It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” Reames said. “So two milligrams of fentanyl is considered to be a lethal dose and right now, 70% of the pills DEA seizing nationwide contain greater than two milligrams of fentanyl.”

Reames said the current average dosage is roughly around 2.4 milligrams.

For context, two milligrams of fentanyl can be seen on the tip of a pencil.

Reames said criminals creating the drug are increasing the dosage due to the current state of users across the United States. He said since more people are using, criminals are increasing the dosage so users can feel the same high as their tolerance increases.

“So that means 70% of the pills we seize could kill you,” he said. “So one pill truly can kill you.”

According to a report published by the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2024, teen overdoses occurred at double the national average in Washington, Arizona, and Colorado between 2020 and 2022.

The report indicated that an average of 22 U.S. teens die each week from drug overdoses, a death toll driven by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Researchers also identified 19 hotspot counties across the United States with death rates higher than the national average.

Maricopa County in Arizona had the most fatal overdoses with 117 and Los Angeles County followed with 111.

The other 17 counties are:

Orange County, Calif. (61 deaths); Cook County, Ill. (56); San Bernardino County, Calif. (54); King County, Wash. (52); Riverside County, Calif. (41); San Diego County, Calif. (36); Tarrant County, Texas (35); Clark County, Nev. (31); Kern County, Calif. (30); Pima County, Ariz. (29); Adams County, Colo. (25); Denver County, Colo. (24); Jackson County, Mo. (24); Santa Clara County, Calif. (24); Bernalillo County, N.M. (23); Davidson County, Tenn. (21); and Marion County, Ind. (21).


DEA special agent Reames told KIRO 7 that the source of the crisis is tracked back to China, where criminals are creating a chemical that is then shipped to Mexico.

Two cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel, are using the chemical to create fentanyl, which is then smuggled into the United States.

“Over 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses,” he said. “Seventy percent of which were from fentanyl poisoning.”

He said the drug is sold in pills, but it’s also being laced into other drugs, including methamphetamine, Percocet, weed, and more.

“We’re seeing fentanyl disguised as oxycodone, as Adderall, as Xanax,” he added.

Reames said the deadly drug enhances the effect of different drugs, and that “fentanyl is very cheap to make.” He added that the deadly drug can be made all year round, while other drugs depend on certain plants, which can only be grown in certain seasons.

“It’s one of the most addictive substances that mankind knows about,” Reames told KIRO 7.


KIRO 7 spoke with Maria Petty, who lost her son Lucas to fentanyl poisoning on October 31, 2022, in Steilacoom.

Petty said her then 16-year-old son attended Steilacoom High School and bought weed from an alumnus, but it was laced with fentanyl.

She found her son Monday morning as he was lying on his bed unresponsive.

“When I grabbed his foot, it was cold,” she said. “It was a sense of panic and fear that ran through my body.”

Paramedics tried to save her son.

Her children saw his body as first responders carried her son’s body outside.

“I think it was their screams that made it real for me,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming and I knew I wasn’t going to wake up. But this nightmare was going to be my reality.”

Petty lost her son in 2022.

“Everything that I felt confident in as a mother is gone,” she said. “October 31, 2022, I feel like I lost a part of me. A part of me died that day as well.”

The fentanyl crisis is not just happening in Pierce County.

Laura Lynch also lost her daughter, Brillion, to the deadly drug in Bellevue on April 3, 2021.

“It was seconds of finding her, you know, dead in her room,” she said. “Was the darkest day of my life. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Lynch said she found her daughter inside her bedroom with her head lying on her desk.

“I thought she’d just fallen asleep there, and I actually thought it was funny,” she said. “And I ran downstairs to get my phone, and I took a picture of her. So I knelt down next to her and started just gently, like calling her name and touching her.”

But moments later, Lynch realized her daughter was unresponsive.

“I remember her feeling cold,” she said. “Ended up, you know, screaming her name and shaking her as hard as I could. And no response.’

Lynch said her then 18-year-old daughter, who recently graduated high school, had purchased Percocet through social media, not knowing it contained fentanyl.

Her daughter met a drug dealer through Snapchat and messaged him on Instagram, she added.

“There was so much fentanyl in her system,” Lynch said. “I think it was two to three dozen people could have died. So much in that pill that she probably died nearly instantly. It’s just that loss. It’s changed my life.”


KIRO 7 spoke with Petty’s daughter, Cayelin, a 10th-grade student at Steilacoom High School, and her nephew, Gerald Cotman, a senior at Mt. Tahoma High School, who showed us how teenagers are getting access to the deadly drug through social media.

“Since my brother passed away, it’s just been happening 24/7,” Cayelin said. “A pretty big thing in my high school. A lot of people know about fentanyl.”

She added that it’s easy to get.

“I don’t really know anybody that would do stuff like that, but I know that it’s easy to do,” Cayelin said. “I know that if someone could just ask around, they can get it, if they wanted to.”

Cotman said the drug is also easily accessible at his school.

“It’s really one call or one text to really get,” Cotman said. “To get that stuff in your hands, to be honest.”

Cayelin said many teenagers are using Snapchat to get in touch with drug dealers, since messages disappear shortly after being sent, and the resources the platform offers.

She showed us Snapchat’s public map where users can see other users across the region. Many users will show certain emojis or signs of their user engagement to indicate that they may be a drug dealer that people can reach out to.

“So Snapchat, it’s really easy to get it on there,” said Cayelin. “I think if you, there’s the option to post something on a map. So everybody in like the whole world can see. So anyway, you just like, put something out there and everybody could see and reach out to that person.”

KIRO 7 asked the DEA how drug dealers are communicating with teenagers on social media. The agency said many criminals are using different emojis to name the drugs they are selling, including the following:

Cayelin and Cotman said they believe many teenagers are not directly buying fentanyl pills, but are purchasing other drugs, like weed, shrooms, and Percocet, not knowing it’s laced with the deadly drug.

“A lot of families from my friends that I know have also had family members that passed away from fentanyl,” Cayelin said.

Cotman added, “(Teenagers) just don’t think it’s going to be in their stuff just because of the people they associate with. ‘Oh, I know, I know who I got this drug from. It couldn’t be in there. No, it’s not.’ That’s just not how that works. It might be in there and it could be you.”

Both Cayelin and Cotman said that this environment is leaking into all schools across the region, not just theirs in Pierce County.

They said school districts are not doing enough to educate students about the deadly drug.

“(Conversations about the drug from staff) comes about here and there,” said Cotman. “But not enough. I feel like it should be talked about a lot. I feel like it should be a course about it, to be honest, in like health.”


Petty and Lynch have been speaking at local events in Pierce and King counties, including school activities, to raise awareness on how fentanyl is killing students.

Petty has been advocating for a new proposal, House Bill 1956, which would require schools to educate students, from 7th grade to 12th grade, and their families about substance abuse, the latest drugs, and how students and families can protect themselves.

There are so many in our community whose families look like mine,” she said. “And how do you warn someone who feels safe in their home and in their parenting and in their upbringing and in their child? To say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to rock the boat, but this is something that you need to put on your radar’ without offending or without putting someone on the defense.”

“I think that fentanyl is in everything. It’s everywhere, and it’s killing at such a rapid rate, and it doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care where you came from, who your parents are, how great of a family you’ve come from. It’s just another number,” she added.

Petty recently spoke at a legislative session about her story and her thoughts on how the bill would affect positive change within the community.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons that I am continuing to do what I can to spread the awareness is because I refuse to let my son be another number,” she said. “It’s everywhere. It’s in every school. It’s just a different building with a different name. There’s different faces, but it’s the same makeup. It’s the only thing that I can think to do to honor my son. But it’s not easy.”

For Lynch, she said she’s focused on addressing the current criminal charges involving drug dealers.

“I believe that just selling fentanyl should be attempted murder,” Lynch said. “Because they (drug dealers) know. They know what that is.”

“I feel like if I can just save one family from going through what we go through, it’ll be worth all my time and effort because it’s just, it’s a pain that, you cannot imagine, no matter how much you try,” Lynch said. “Nobody knows it unless it’s happened to you. I hope that what’s happened to my daughter doesn’t happen to theirs because it can happen to anybody.”


KIRO 7 reached out to the King County Prosecutor’s Office and requested an interview with the county’s prosecutor, Leesa Manion, to learn more about her process and approach to charging drug dealers.

We are still waiting to hear back.

KIRO 7 also reached out to Seattle Children’s Hospital to understand how the deadly drug is affecting children.

“Between 2021 and 2023, 25 patients were admitted to Seattle Children’s ED,” said a spokesperson. “To protect patient privacy, we are not able to provide any further identifying information at this time. It’s important to also note that Seattle Children’s is just one emergency room where children and teens present to in the city.”

KIRO 7 followed up to request more details. We are still waiting to hear back.


KIRO 7 reached out to Snapchat and asked the company about its safety measures to deter drug dealers from selling substances to teenagers, and its response.

A spokesperson for the company shared the following statement:

The fentanyl epidemic has taken the lives of too many people and we have deep empathy for families who have suffered unimaginable losses. At Snap, we are working diligently to stop drug dealers from abusing our platform, and deploy technologies to proactively identify and shut down dealers, support law enforcement efforts to help bring dealers to justice, and educate our community and the general public about the dangers of fentanyl.

We also reached out to Meta, the company that owns Instagram, to understand how the company is protecting children.

A spokesperson shared the following:

For years, we’ve been working with expert organizations to help prevent and combat the misuse of drugs. We know that people mostly find drug content by searching for it. So when people search for drugs on Facebook and Instagram, we direct them to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline to help educate them about the risks.

We’ve also been working to combat drug trafficking online. Considering this challenge is bigger than any single platform, we’re collaborating with other social media companies to tackle these issues. For example, we recently started a pilot with Snapchat to identify patterns and signs of illicit drug-related content and activity.

We also recently updated our Community Standards to clarify our long-standing prohibition of the sale or purchase of dangerous non-medical drugs on our platforms. The definition of non-medical drugs now includes precursor chemicals, including those that could potentially help manufacture dangerous drugs like fentanyl. We remove content related to drug sales and misuse, and take action against anyone attempting to organize illegal drug sales on our platforms.

Comments on this article