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Drug overdoses probed in USC student deaths, pointing to 'twin epidemics'

Colleen Shalby, Soumya Karlamangla, Teresa Watanabe and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Some of the nine recent deaths of USC students are potentially linked to drug overdoses, reflecting a growing concern among educators and health officials about rising drug use by college-age adults and the need for greater mental health services at universities.

Particularly worrisome is that investigators are probing whether any of the USC deaths are connected to tainted drugs -- drugs touted as one thing but which actually contain more potent narcotics.

"We all know that people that get drugs on the street have no idea what is in those drugs," USC President Carol Folt said Wednesday.

Three of the USC deaths were by suicide, according to campus officials. Although Folt would not elaborate on the circumstances of the individual deaths, citing federal student privacy laws, she said USC is working with the Los Angeles Police Department on the other cases and "doubling down" on education and outreach over drug abuse.

No links to contaminated drugs have yet been confirmed, according to sources who spoke to The Times on the condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. Autopsies and toxicology tests are still pending in a number of the deaths.

But in what experts say is the latest wave of the opioid epidemic, the potent narcotic fentanyl has been increasingly showing up in non-opioids like cocaine and ecstasy, the kinds of substances that students may experiment with on a college campus. The addition of fentanyl, a white powder that can be lethal even in very small amounts, makes other drugs drastically more deadly, experts say.

 

In a letter sent to students just after 10 p.m. Tuesday, top USC officials warned against the dangers of opioid use and the mixture of drugs with other substances. Officials decided to relay new information and the risks of narcotics to ensure student safety, said USC Police Chief John Thomas.

"You (students) may feel invincible, but you are not," Thomas said. "Please look out for yourself and your fellow students."

School officials said that on its campus of roughly 47,500 students, USC has four to 15 student deaths in a typical school year. While nine deaths is not abnormal, the number in such a short time has been especially jarring for the community.

"The deaths are very alarming," said Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness. "There's no corner of the U.S. that's been spared from the opioid epidemic, and college students are clearly vulnerable."

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