What One Pill Can Do… Life or Death

By Annie Shine and Violet Howard

Opioid use in Marin County has become a dangerous and a life-threatening issue, more commonly to teens. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) estimates 769,000 children between the ages 12 to 17 have misused opioids. This is resulting in teens having more accessibility to drugs, which is creating an epidemic of opioid use, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2019, the number of drug overdose deaths in Marin was higher than it was in any past year, based on a document published by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury. 

Acquiring opioids has become increasingly accessible over the years for teens in Marin County. Yvonne Milham, Tamalpais High School Wellness Coordinator, said there is a range of use of opioids among users.

 “There are folks who maybe try something one time and then there are folks who are habitual users who have their body and brain telling them they need to take them in order to be okay,” she said.

According to the Tam’s Wellness Center, students can become reliant on this drug due to many reasons. These include taking prescribed opioids due to an injury or receiving opioids from unknown people through unprescribed means. 

Having prescribed opioids does have a risk of addiction, which can, in some cases, result in death. 

One such instance is Tamalpais High graduate and Sonoma State student Trevor Leopold, who was found dead in his dorm room after buying and consuming counterfeit pills that were laced with fentanyl. 

“I understand why a lot of people are quiet about their child dying from pills or drugs or addiction,” Michelle Leopold, his mother, said, “but I would rather save lives than protect myself from being embarrassed.” 


An opioid is a class of drug used to relieve pain, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Prescription opioids can be prescribed by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain but can also have serious risks and side effects,” the CDC’s website reads. Common types of opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, and methadone.

Purchasing or obtaining opioids through unprescribed reasons can also cause serious issues, particularly if the opioid is laced with fentanyl. Opioid addiction in general can result in a serious impact on the ability to focus in school and participate in everyday activities. 

“Opioids trigger and release endorphins which are the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters inside your brain,” according to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit organization operated by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).

The Mayo Clinic states that the main reason that opioid use is dangerous and comes with such risks is that it is highly addictive—with each dose a person takes, the more reliant they become on the drug. Opioids can also restrict breathing and the respiratory system when taken or when interfered with other medications. 


Fentanyl is a category of opioids that is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, according to the CDC.

“It is many times more powerful than other opioids and is approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain,” the CDC’s website reads, adding that illegally made and distributed fentanyl has been on the rise in several states.

Fentanyl is one such synthetic opioid being pressed into fake pills or other forms of drugs, which is referred to as fentanyl poisoning, and there is new research regarding this.

There has recently been an alarming strike in fentanyl overdoses resulting in death. According to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury, in 2020 an estimated 4,400 Marin County residents suffered from opioid use disorders, and between 2006 and 2019 over 400 people have died in Marin County due to drug overdose. 

Half of those deaths were caused by opioids. 

According to a report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) initiative One Pill Can Kill, the DEA seized more than 10.2 million fentanyl pills and approximately 980 pounds of fentanyl powder during the period of May through September this year.

According to the CDC, 75 percent of all drug overdose related deaths have been the result of opioid overdose in 2020. Of those opioid overdoses around 80 percent involved synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl is now in multiple different forms and can be accessed in the Bay Area, including Mill Valley, as reported by the DEA on its initiative’s website. 

“Fake pills are made to look like OxyContin, Xanax, Adderall, and other pharmaceuticals. These fake pills contain no legitimate medicine,” the same report from One Pill Can Kill reads. These fake pills laced with fentanyl are being sold as rainbow-colored looking skittles, allegedly meant to attract younger audiences. According to the One Pill Can Kill website, this has become such a pressing issue because drug dealers in the U.S. realized how much more money they can make by mixing fentanyl with other, more expensive drugs. 


Tam alumna, who will be referred to as Alice S, overdosed on opioids last summer after coming home from a rehabilitation center. 

Alice S had graduated from Tam in the class of 2020 and continued her academic career at New York University (NYU), studying education and pursuing her passion to work with underprivileged children. 

“She was so smart, she was so witty, so intuitive, and all of her friends would say the same thing,” Jessica, Alice S’s mom, said. “She never asked me for help with homework a day in her life. She was always just dedicated, diligent, and organized. She was a prolific writer, super organized but always had time for friends and fun.” 

Jessica has seen drug use first-hand in her household. 

“I’ve had Tam High students and amazing kids from Marin just over the past couple decades come through my house and sleep over, so I’ve known for a while that it’s very easy to get drugs in Marin and certainly at Tam High,” she said. 

Jessica always knew Alice S was hanging out with friends and going to house parties on the weekend, but she explained how she was never too worried about Alice S’s use with drugs because she was always a great student. “[I] didn’t want to be a helicopter parent,” Jessica said. 

Shortly after she recognized how often Alice S was going out, that’s when she knew something had to be done. “I think junior year and senior year of high school is when I started to get wind that she had tried opioids, you know, pills like a percocet or something that someone had given her. So we talked about it and I asked who gave it to her and it was one of her friends’ boyfriends and that is how this came to life,” Jessica said. 

Jessica quickly became more aware of the path Alice S was heading down and she knew what would come in the future if Alice S didn’t quit immediately. “We had a really serious conversation about how there’s only one thing that’s going to happen with using any kind of pills. ‘You’re going to get addicted. There’s no way about it. So you have to stop,’” Jessica told Alice S, who promised that she was going to.

While Alice S was at NYU her freshman year, she was on lock down due to the pandemic. Jessica said Alice S had always experienced ups and downs with her mental health which mainly began when her birth mother passed away when she was five years old. Alice S was always an organized and hardworking high schooler; however, Alice S knew she needed to seek help regarding her drug abuse, and being in her dorm alone during this time of isolation did not help her situation. 

“She left to come back to California for treatment and went to rehab and she did it. It’s hard, the truth is no one can get someone else sober, not even my daughter. The person really has to want to get sober for themselves and that’s a really hard thing to do, especially with opioids,” Jessica said. 

Eventually, extreme pain killers took over Alice, resulting in her death, even with the support and love she was receiving from family, friends, and professionals. 

Jessica explained how Tam always sent newsletters regarding alcohol abuse and 

informational emails about the prevalence of drugs, but she said “overdose prevention, not so much.” 


“We have the resources to support students,” Sophia Kaufman, Wellness Outreach specialist at Tam High, said. 

Tam Wellness will be having a campaign around fentanyl use in a couple of months and they also offer 24/7 substance counseling support for people who are struggling with any type of addiction. There are Wellness 101 classes along with informational presentations that both Milham and Kaufman.

Jessica overall wants to ensure students’ awareness of the damaging effects opioids not only have on yourself but also on your close friends and family. 

“The truth is when something like this happens it is so fantastically damaging and destructive to an entire family. Not just the part about death, which is obviously the worst thing that can happen, just addiction is so damaging to a family dynamic: it hurts parents, it hurts grandparents, it hurts everybody and the addict doesn’t really see that ever … they think about themselves and their addiction.” 

She continued: “The thing I would say to any Tam student is really think about how would your mom or dad or little brother or older sister feel if something bad happened to you, and you know some things are irreversible. This is one of those cases where it leaves a big hole in all of our hearts to not have Alice here.”