BirdieLight founder and mother of former AU student addresses harm reduction strategies and the fentanyl epidemic
‘We have to be bold in our solutions’
Editor’s note: This story contains references to substance use and overdose. Please see the bottom of this story for additional resources.
What if it was as easy for high school and college students to access fentanyl testing strips as it was for them to access condoms?
Six months ago, Beth Weinstock made it her mission to place fentanyl testing strips in the hands of every high school and college student in the country. Weinstock spoke at American University on Feb. 28 for her organization BirdieLight, which works to prevent fentanyl-related deaths and place fentanyl test strips in the hands of high school and college students.
Weinstock is the mother of a former AU student Eli Weinstock who passed away a year ago from fentanyl poisoning in March 2021. Since starting BirdieLight with her daughter, the organization has distributed fentanyl test strips and educational materials to schools and organizations across the country.
“We have to be bold in our solutions and admit that the ‘just say no to drugs’ message is important, but it's not working completely,” Weinstock said during the event.
The event was part of School of Communication professor Gemma Puglisi’s Public Relations portfolio class, where students work with a client throughout the semester on public relations and messaging strategies. There were also events throughout the week that the students in Puglisi’s class worked with Weinstock to put on, including tabling and distributing fentanyl testing strips on campus and a fundraiser pool tournament at the Glover Park bar Breadsoda.
Weinstock, who is also a physician, said that although she does not condone drug usage, telling people not to do drugs isn’t enough to fight this crisis. This is especially pertinent as BirdieLight tries to reach high school students, she said.
Weinstock and BirdieLight are also working to destigmatize fentanyl test strips. She showed students how to use a test strip – crush up a pill, put it in a small amount of water in a cup and put the strip in for 15 seconds. Two lines on the strip means the drug is negative, and one line mean the drug has tested positive for fentanyl. If the test is negative, that pill can still be consumed by drinking the water it was tested in, she said. If it is positive, the drug should be thrown out immediately.
“I think probably we still think of fentanyl as something that is injected into the veins of someone addicted to heroin, that we still … like to ‘other’ people that have gotten themselves addicted to opioids,” she said.
One of the goals of BirdieLight is to find young people in what Weinstock referred to as the “middle space” – first-time or recreational drug use. This space, Weinstock said, is where this education is needed the most.
“People who try things don't deserve to die. People who use cocaine once a month or twice a month don't deserve to die. College kids who do a line of cocaine for the first time on a rooftop apartment building while watching a football game don't deserve to die,” she said.
Fentanyl is the leading cause of death for people aged 18-45 in the U.S., what Weinstock called “the crisis of a generation.” In 2015, the U.S. had reached more deaths from fentanyl poisoning than the country had had at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. More than 100,000 people died from drug-related deaths between April 2020 and April 2021, the first time that number has reached six figures in any 12 month period. More people die from fentanyl-related deaths than any other drug.
“We don't lose this many young people per year in wars, to cancer, to car accidents. Nothing gets close,” she said.
Weinstock explained that in 1988, the federal government sent a flier to every U.S. household in the mail warning people of the dangers of HIV and urging condom use and educating people on how to stay safe. That was only three years after the HIV epidemic began, and she wonders where the same action is from the government on fentanyl.
Weinstock put the fentanyl epidemic in the context of other major events that Americans typically associate with widespread fatalities: In 2020, nearly 70,000 people died from fentanyl deaths. The Vietnam War Memorial wall holds 58,281 names. At the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1995, fatalities totaled about 50,000 lives.
“Where's our fentanyl flier? Why aren't we getting the equivalent of a mailer to every household in the United States? This crisis surpasses that one,” she said. “Why so little response in the public space about fentanyl-related deaths? I would argue that probably it's because of [the] stigma.”
She shared three steps with students that she wants them to keep in mind if they are experimenting with drugs:
1. Test the substance – and dispose of it if the test is positive
2. Tell someone you are using the substance
3. Keep Narcan on hand
Narcan, also known as naloxone, is a nasal spray that can be used to treat opioid overdoses. Narcan is available for free at D.C. pharmacies with or without a prescription, as well as from the Opioid Learning Institute.
Beyond just testing strips and education, Weinstock is also involved in advocacy work and said she is encouraged by President Joe Biden’s support of federal dollars being able to go toward harm reduction. BirdieLight has applied for 501(c)(3) status, and she hopes to apply for federal grants to continue the work of harm reduction. Additionally, she wants to see harm reduction curriculum being taught in schools and hopes to start a BirdieLight ambassador program, where students on campuses across the country can work to spread BirdieLight’s message and distribute the testing strips.
“The truth is, right now in this country we don't just have an opioid crisis, which sadly I think the public has grown weary of,” she said. “Right now, we also have a poisoning crisis and they run parallel to each other. There's some crossover, but it's misguided to equate them. There's the opioid addiction crisis, and then there's this poisoning crisis.”
Weinstock said that BirdieLight does not use the word overdose when talking about fatalities, as overdose implies that the person taking the fentanyl was using it on a regular or daily basis. In reality, she said, the vast majority of people who die from ingesting fentanyl did not know they were taking it.
She’s seeing results in her work, too. Weinstock said a group of college students who had received test strips from BirdieLight used the strips to test ecstasy they were planning on taking at a music festival. After the test strips showed up as positive, they threw away the drugs.
Weinstock encouraged students to use the testing strips, carry Narcan and educate their friends. She also encouraged students to ask AU to make testing strips available to students on campus, similar to how HPAC and the Health Center distribute condoms. Currently, testing strips are available in the district from HIPS and Bread for the City. She said people can also contact BirdieLight to get testing strips.
As Weinstock travels the country and speaks to young people in high school and college, she sees this work as a final act of parenting Eli.
“This is my way of keeping my relationship with him, caring for him, ongoing,” she said, in an interview with The Eagle. “It's not what I want, it's not the way I want, but when I can speak to other young adults, and I can talk about Eli and I can make something good happen, then I feel like I'm in some ways taking care of him.”
With every test strip distributed and every potential life saved, she knows that her action is not fully a replacement for her grief.
“What I always have to recognize is that I have to take care of my grief too. I can't just say BirdieLight displaces that – it doesn't. So on some days, I just turn off and I say that today I'm taking care of my grief. What that means for me is I go to the cemetery, I look at pictures, look at videos, connect with an old friend of his, whatever it takes, but I honor it,” she said. “Because it's not healthy to just say BirdieLight does that for me. BirdieLight exists in addition to my grief. So I spend those days just unplugging and honoring it, however painful it is.”
In all of her work, she hopes that the word people use to remember Eli isn’t fentanyl.
“Everybody who met Eli thought he was hilarious, and he was, with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. He could drop a one-liner in a very inappropriate quiet moment that would make everyone laugh, even though you knew you shouldn't be laughing,” she said. “He had this really wicked sense of humor, and he loved his family more than anything.”
To seek help or access information about accidental overdoses or harm reduction resources near you, visit the National Harm Reduction Coalition’s resource page. If you are experiencing grief or trauma following the death of a loved one, visit the Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing resource page.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP(4357) for individuals and families facing mental or substance abuse disorders.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the positive indicator for a fentanyl-laced drug.