AUSTIN (KXAN) — The family of University of Texas student and Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlinger say the 20-year-old’s May death was due to an accidental drug overdose.

In a statement sent Thursday, the Ehlinger family says they learned Jake accidentally overdosed May 6 from what’s believed to be the prescription anti-anxiety medication Xanax laced with fentanyl. These kinds of counterfeit pills have been seen increasingly in Texas and nationwide.

In a statement, the family wrote:

“As our family continues to process Jake’s death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake’s story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one.”

Ehlinger family

The Austin Police Department says it is not conducting a criminal investigation in the case.

Ehlinger is the brother of former Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts earlier this year. Jake served as Longhorns walk-on linebacker after graduating from Westlake High School, where he was honorable mention All-State and named the District 25-6A defensive MVP as a senior.

Jake was a second-year finance student at UT’s McCombs School of Business, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs student organization.

Ehlinger’s father died back in 2013 while swimming in a triathlon in San Francisco. In Jake’s obituary, the Ehlinger family said Jake and his father “shared an unbreakable bond. They were each other’s biggest fans.”

Counterfeit pills in Texas

Overdoses from Fentanyl are skyrocketing as drug dealers are increasingly pressing the dangerous drug into tablets resembling common painkillers like Xanax and OxyContin.

Fentanyl is an opioid that can be both legally prescribed for conditions like chronic pain and cancer, but it’s also produced illegally for recreational use. It was created in Belgium in 1960 by Dr. Paul Janssen, founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica — which is now owned by Johnson & Johnson.

The drug is up to 100-times stronger than morphine and can be up to 60 times stronger than heroin, the DEA says.

Most illegal product comes primarily from Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. On the street, it can be known as “China Girl,” “China White,” “Dance Fever,” “Poison,” and “Tango & Cash.”

The DEA says a fatal dose of fentanyl can be as low as two milligrams, depending on a user’s body size and tolerance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says synthetic opioids like fentanyl were responsible for over 73% of all opioid-related deaths in 2019 — of which there were more than 36,000. In addition to ordinary fentanyl, there’s a crop of new drugs that are similar to it that have emerged, including acetylfentanyl and carfentanil. While some of these similar drugs are less powerful than fentanyl, some of them are even stronger.

Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by the Cedar Park Police Department
Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by Cedar Park Police Department (CPPD Photo)

Carfentanil is the most potent of the fentanyl analog, the CDC reports. It can also be up to 100-times stronger than fentanyl.

While fentanyl is up to 100-times stronger than morphine, carfentanil can be up to 10,000-times more potent than morphine. The DEA says a two-milligram dose of carfentanil, which is typically used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large mammals, can be fatal. Visually, a fatal dose of carfentanil can be smaller than a pea.

Some heroin is also being laced with fentanyl and carfentanil, adding to heroin’s already deadly possibilities.

Last year, Austin police reported that at least five overdose deaths by the month of April were due to counterfeit Oxycodone and Xanax pills made with fentanyl. Recently, Austin Police Department officers were given funding to carry Narcan, the drug that treats someone believed to be suffering an opioid overdose.

CDC’s latest data shows from March 2019 to March 2020 there were 460 synthetic opioid deaths in the state. The next year, from March 2020 to March 2021, that number nearly tripled to 1,289 synthetic opioid overdoses.

“The most effective thing we can do is make sure that normal everyday people, people who use drugs, friends and family of people who use drugs are equipped with Narcan and know how to administer it,” said Lucas G. Hill, PharmD, BCPS, BCACP, Clinical Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy.

Hill says Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote, is one of the best ways to help stop the deadly outcomes of drugs. He says UT Austin has had Narcan available in residence halls since 2016 and pharmacy students distribute it for free at training sessions on campus. Although COVID has slowed down distribution, the school is ramping back up as well as sending targeted messaging about the dangers of synthetic opioid overdoses.

Also of note in Texas, since January of 2020 deaths caused by synthetic opioids like Fentanyl have increased rapidly. Since January 2020, synthetic opioids overdose deaths have become more common than cocaine, heroin, and natural and semi-natural opioids. The only drugs causing more overdose deaths in Texas than synthetic opioids like Fentanyl are “psychostimulants” like methamphetamine and amphetamine, according to the CDC’s data.

Sharing their stories

Similar to the Ehlinger family, one Central Texas mom is also sharing her story to save others from losing a child in an overdose.

Annie Hernandez lost her son Joshua in 2019 after he unknowingly took a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl. She says he had been in a car accident that led to a painkiller addiction. He was only 33.

“You can never imagine the pain of losing a child and then the pain of losing a child to an overdose is even more problematic,” Hernandez said. “He didn’t want to die. And he didn’t want fentanyl. So why is that not deemed murder?”

Although Hernandez is still dealing with the daily pain of her son’s death, she’s dedicated to explaining the dangers of fentanyl and helping others dealing with the same tragedy.

“You never will be the same. I have two, there’s two of me. I have me before Josh died and I have the me that I am now. And they’re two different people,” Hernandez said. “He didn’t ask for this and this and I want to get this across, this fentanyl is so dangerous. It’s so dangerous. It’s one pill can kill.”