Amanda Eubanks says her 13-year-old boy didn't know what drug he was taking, and got a counterfeit pill containing enough fentanyl to fatally poison him
Luca Manuel never imagined he'd lose his life over one small pill. He had too much stuff to do. The 13-year-old loved taking photos with his new camera, blasting Prince in his mom Amanda Eubanks' car, and serving dinner to his town's homeless residents.
But in August 2020 a drug dealer on a social-media app sold the unsuspecting teen a Percocet to help with some tooth pain. Instead, Luca got a counterfeit pill containing enough fentanyl to fatally poison him. It was the day before he was to begin eighth grade.
"Now he doesn't get to live his life," says Eubanks, of Redding, Calif. "All I have left are these little memories and Luca doesn't get to make any more."
Luca is just one of thousands of Americans who has been swept up by a tidal wave of death caused by the sale of counterfeit pills online. These pills, which traffickers press to mimic legitimate prescription medications such as the painkillers Oxycodone and Percocet and stimulants like Adderall often contain lethal doses of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The DEA reports that they seized more than 20 million fake pills last year, and 40 percent contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
"Youth are getting hammered from these fake pills," says Jon Epstein of fentanyl-awareness group Song for Charlie. "Deaths among 10- to 19-year-olds are growing at three times the rate of other age groups. They, and many young adults, are broadly unaware of this risk."
On the day Luca died, Eubanks was at home shelving the groceries she'd purchased so that she and her son could later make spaghetti for the homeless. Her ex-husband called: "You need to come to the house now," he told her. "He was sick in his voice. I could hear it. And I knew."
When she got to Luca's father's home, the police were there. They prevented Eubanks from seeing her son. "I raged on the trash cans on the street," she says. "I threw one over an 8-foot fence." When they finally allowed her to hug Luca, it was through a body bag. "When I ran my hand over his face it reminded me of his outline in the womb," she says. "The pain left behind is something I don't ever want anyone else to feel."
The young man who sold the counterfeit pill to Luca has been charged with murder.
People are selling drugs on multiple parts of the internet — social media, internet pharmacies, and the dark web, says Tim K. Mackey, director at Global Health Policy and Data Institute. "There's no quality control of their products, so any pill you're buying online is extremely dangerous."
Mackey points to a wide range of reactions from social-media companies, from minimal (blocking certain hashtags or keywords from being searched) to proactive (using AI to detect and delete content and running education campaigns to warn their user base about risks).
Parental insight is key as well. Mackey says that counterfeit pills often are delivered via the service DoorDash as well as USPS, "so be aware of any type of packages and deliveries to your home."
Young people often use encrypted communications apps, such as Discord or Telegram, he says, "which tend to expose youth to higher risk content. We see the internet being used for marketing purposes but then the actual transaction layer can occur on a different platform. Research also points to high-stress events for kids and young adults such as exam weeks as triggers for substance use. And parents should be aware of their kids' digital social circles, which are different than in-person social circles. "They can impact real-world behavior."
For more about the faces of America's fentanyl epidemic and the fight to end it, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.