LOS ANGELES - The Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, is seeing an alarming increase in fentanyl-related drug deaths across the country and throughout Southern California.
Bill Bodner, a Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Los Angeles Field Division, described the deaths as a "crisis."
"I think this is a crisis and unlike anything I've seen in my 30 years, this is something where I think public awareness can go a long way with addressing the problem. If people just become aware of what they're taking, if they learn that these pills are actually fentanyl pills and there's a 40% chance they can die from taking these pills, I think we'll go a long way towards solving the problem," said Bodner.
What is fentanyl?
According to the CDC's website, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. The opioid is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It is a prescribed drug, as well as a drug made and used illegally at times.
"It can take as little as two milligrams of fentanyl to cause a death, and right now what we're seeing over the past year is 40% of the pills that we seize and test have two milligrams or more of fentanyl in them, and those are what I call red zone pills. That means each of those pills has the potential to kill someone," said Bodner.
How did the fentanyl crisis start?
Bodner broke down the origin of the problem.
"Let's remember the opiate crisis in this country started with prescription drugs, especially on the east coast, [places such as] West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Users there developed an addiction or a desire to get these drugs so as DEA cracked down, and as medical professionals and pharmaceutical professionals cracked down and wrote less prescriptions, the demand turned toward the illicit market, and that's where the drug cartels have stepped in to manufacture this drug, and that's why it has become such a big problem throughout the United States," said Bodner.
How is fentanyl coming into Los Angeles?
Bodner said the pills are made internationally.
"The chemicals to make these drugs come from China and India and those drugs are brought into Mexico. The pills are manufactured in Mexico and then they're smuggled across the border here in the United States. They're smuggled in hundreds of thousands of pill quantities. It's not uncommon for us now to seize 100,000 pills at one location," Bodner said.
Bodner described Los Angeles as a "transshipment center."
"Our community [Los Angeles] is always going to bear the brunt of these problems. Drugs come across the border, and traditionally they don't stop in San Diego. They're [the drugs] smuggled across the border, and come right up to the Los Angeles area where they're warehoused. Some [of the drugs] are sold locally, and a large portion go out to different cities, whether it's Chicago, New York, or Boston. This is a center because of the freeways, the trains, and the several airports we have. It's a very successful point for drug organizations to bring drugs in through and distribute them throughout the United States," said Bodner.
Bodner said the pills are all over social media, giving people of all ages easier access to the deadly drugs.
"If you have a smartphone now, you are in an open-air drug market. It doesn't matter where you are. It used to be maybe you had to go to a certain neighborhood to buy a specific type of drug, and a lot of times, that is maybe what kept some of our people safe, some of our community members safe, especially our teenagers. Now it's everywhere thanks to social media," said Bodner.
In 2021, the DEA in the greater Los Angeles area seized over 3 million counterfeit pills suspected to be fentanyl, which is a three-fold increase from 2020. In the first four months of 2021, fentanyl was responsible for 60% of drug-caused deaths in LA County, 74% in Orange County and 50% in Riverside County. The alarming trend prompted the DEA to issue a public safety alert warning about fake prescription pills in November.
"It's an unusual step that we took. We haven't done something like this in a number of years. Unfortunately what we've been seeing is statistics trending in the wrong direction. We've seen deaths go up. We've seen the proportion of those deaths caused by fentanyl go up. We've seen more and more of these counterfeit prescription pills on our street, pills that contain fentanyl, pills that have no pharmaceutical ingredients in them, and unfortunately, finally they're just easier to get now," said Bodner.
Bodner said the biggest problem with fake prescription pills is the deception behind them.
"I think the number one thing that's causing death in respect to fentanyl is the deceptive way that it's being marketed, and it really comes in two manners. First is with counterfeit prescription pills, especially teenagers that are buying these pills, they think they're buying a legitimate pharmaceutical drug. The reality is if that pill didn't come from a doctor, or a pharmacy, if you didn't personally get it from the doctor or pharmacy, it is counterfeit. There's no maybe. There's no possibility, it is counterfeit, and it contains fentanyl," said Bodner.
How DEA is tackling the problem
Bodner said the DEA has a "three-pronged strategy."
"First, starting on the distribution end, we're targeting people selling this drug on social media. We're making it a specific point to have undercover operations that target people advertising and selling the drug on social media, and also we specifically target people who have distributed drugs that have led to a drug death. That's how we're dealing with it on the distribution end. Then we have another program that works on the wholesale end. We're identifying the organizations bringing this drug across the border," said Bodner.
Bodner said it is not always easy to catch the dealers.
"It's not their [drug dealers] first time doing this. They go through tremendous lengths to try to hide their identity. They're hiding on social media. It's difficult sometimes to get them to come out in public to even do a drug transaction. It's very challenging. It's a cat and mouse game and we have to be persistent and we have to stay on top of it and go after them," said Bodner.
Bodner said the family impact is the most devastating aspect of this crisis.
"I think the hardest part of my job right now is dealing with family members who have lost a loved one to fentanyl. It's extremely difficult because I see the pain they're going through," said Bodner.
‘A Song for Charlie’
Ed and Mary Ternan lost their youngest son, Charlie, 22, in May 2020 to a fentanyl drug death.
"Charlie had lived with us during the pandemic for a couple months. He was on his Spring Break, and he went back up to school. He was a senior in college with three weeks left to graduate, and he was only there six days, and then we got the call on May 14th, 2020, that Charlie had died," said Mary.
Charlie went online to buy Percocet, a drug he was prescribed two years prior for back surgery.
"We didn't see any signs of addiction or substance use or any problems like that while Charlie was living with us, but we found out the next day that the likely culprit was fentanyl in a counterfeit Percocet, and it turns out that that's what happened. The Percocet that he thought he got was counterfeit, made of just fentanyl and it killed him in about 15 minutes after he took it," said Ed.
Mary said every day since her son's death has been "hell."
"Every day is fresh. It's like you just kind of wonder how you're going to get through each day, but we want to remember Charlie and what Charlie would want us to do, and that is going forward, save some lives, help people so that nobody goes through what we're experiencing every day of our lives," said Mary.
The family had never heard of fentanyl prior to Charlie's death.
"Mary and I quickly discovered after Charlie died that a lot of people did know about these counterfeit pills made of fentanyl but those were mostly law enforcement people, first responders, emergency room doctors and they were all really, really worried because the problem was getting worse," said Ed.
Ed said he stresses how Charlie was a "regular guy."
"He had the same stressors and anxiety that this generation is dealing with just like every other kid his age. We really believe young people today are really stressed and anxious for a whole lot of reasons, and they're turning to pills that they're so familiar with to kind of just self-medicate and take the edge off, and Charlie got caught up in that so he wasn't perfect, but he was a great kid with lots of friends," said Ed.
Ed and Mary Ternan started a non-profit organization in Charlie's honor, A Song for Charlie.
"Charlie was a big music and movie buff and this young guy named Jack Symes knew and loved Charlie and grew up in this area and Charlie was a big follower of his. After he had heard that Charlie died, he wrote a song. A song for Charlie, and it's just beautiful and it's all about Charlie, so we thought let's just make a nonprofit,'A Song for Charlie,' in memory of Charlie and being grateful to Jack," said Mary.
The organization is family-run and is dedicated to raising awareness about "fentapills" — fake pills made of fentanyl. The organization partners with experts, educators and parents.
"We decided that we wanted to fill the information gap and get the information about these counterfeit pills directly to the people who need to have the information, young people right between middle school age and college-age who need to know that these counterfeit pills have just flooded the market and any pill that they get online or on the street, is in this day and age, counterfeit for sure and most likely made of fentanyl," said Ed.
The Ternans want the language updated when referring to these deaths to exclude the term "overdose" because the victims are unknowingly taking fentanyl.
"The analogy I like to use is something everyone is familiar with, which is let's say Jack Daniels. If I go to the store and I buy a handle of Jack Daniels and I take it home and I drink it all in one sitting, I've overdosed on Jack Daniels and that's what caused my death and ultimately, that's on me. If I go to the store and I buy a handle of Jack Daniels and I take one shot which is the recommended dose, and I fall over dead because it wasn't Jack Daniels. It was cyanide and brown food coloring in a Jack Daniels bottle, that's not an overdose, that's a poisoning, and the culpability of that death is on the seller of that counterfeit product and that's very important and has serious implications for law enforcement procedures in the field and for criminal prosecutions," said Ed.
The Ternans said they are shifting their focus from getting justice to helping others.
"We are deliberately not focusing too much on that [justice]. We would like to see the people who sold Charlie that fake pill brought to justice, but that's a long road and it's difficult and ultimately it won't bring Charlie back so we have chosen to focus on preventing the next death by warning young people that all these pills floating online and on the street are all counterfeit these days," said Ed.
"We just want to inform parents and educators and as Ed said, especially the kids so that they don't experience what we're experiencing and help save some lives because that's what Charlie would want us to do," said Mary.
Orange County and Riverside County prosecutors create stiffer penalties:
Riverside County District Attorney, Mike Hestrin, and Orange County District Attorney, Todd Spitzer, are pursuing murder charges against convicted drug dealers who peddle drugs that lead to a death.
The Riverside County District Attorney Office has already filed seven such cases and had three more in the pipeline as of November.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer announced a similar effort from his office. Spitzer said the practice will work much like the so-called Watson Waiver, which permits second-degree murder charges against convicted drunken drivers involved in a deadly crash. The major difference, however, is the Watson Waiver has been approved by state lawmakers and is an established legal precedence.
An effort to pass a similar law against convicted drug dealers peddling fentanyl earlier this year failed to get out of committee in Sacramento.
"Any time we can create stiffer penalties for people distributing fentanyl that leads to a death, I think it's a positive so I applaud those district attorneys for taking that step. Is it ideal? No, because you have to have them in court the first time before you can give them that admonishment so if they were to cause a death with their first distribution, you might not be able to charge them with murder so that's the only downside to it where as with the federal laws, we can actually charge that 20 year charge the first time that they're caught," said Bodner.
Bodner said the best course of action is to aim for federal charges.
"We have teams that are trying to give justice to people. We try to trace the drugs back to a supplier and file federal criminal charges on the suppliers. It's a 20 year charge in the federal justice system which is substantial. If you deal even one pill and that pill kills someone, that's a 20 year charge and that's the name of our public awareness campaign, one pill can kill because that's really all it takes," said Bodner.
The DEA has created an email address for anyone who knows someone who died from a drug related death and wants it investigated by authorities. The email address is LAFD-DrugCausedDeaths@dea.gov.