Fighting Fentanyl: Social media virus in real life

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Families who have lost loved ones to counterfeit pills purchased through social media sites rallied at Snapchat headquarters in Santa Monica June 4. VAlley News/Courtesy photo

Parents of murdered children rally at Snapchat headquarters

While the advent of technology has made life easier in many positive ways, it has also made it easier for criminals to pursue illicit activities with little chance of getting caught. Gone are the days of drug pushers lurking in dark alleys waiting to supply their connections. Now a simple social media message can get them the money they seek. This simplicity has made it easier for young people to access drugs, although these days it’s typically not to feed an addiction.

Social media platforms, such as Snapchat that appeals to a young audience, have become the marketplace for those seeking an escape from pain – either physical or mental. The most common drugs being purchased these days are well-known prescription drugs such as Oxycodone, Xanax and Adderall and not cocaine, heroin and crystal meth.

However, because there is a rampant disregard for human life on the part of drug dealers, counterfeit pills are being manufactured to keep up with the demand for legitimate drugs. And these pills are made with synthetic fentanyl, a dangerous opioid that can and does kill in small quantities.

Christine and Matt Capelouto of Temecula helped organize “Bereaved Family Day – Victims of Illicit Narcotic Poisoning” in Arizona June 13 where they and others shared stories of their loved ones, who died from fentanyl poisoning. Valley News/Courtesy photo

“Our kids do not have the option of an experimental phase; they do not have a choice of whether that drug gets them high, or if it kills them,” Amy Neville said. “These deaths are not an overdose, these are poisonings. All illicit pills are fentanyl, never the pill they claim to be. The term ‘laced with’ is dangerous, it implies that there are legitimate pills in the black marketplace, but that is just not the case.”

Neville’s son, Alexander, was 14 when he died in his Aliso Viejo bedroom in June 2020 after ingesting a counterfeit pill made of fentanyl.

“This is not the same old war on drugs – fentanyl is its own beast. The fentanyl epidemic is a raging wildfire and Snapchat and other social media are dumping gasoline on that fire,” Neville said. “All are a problem, but Snapchat has more than 90% of all 13-24-year-olds using their platform. It’s the modern-day playground and it needs to be safe.”

This belief is what prompted her to help organize a peaceful rally outside Snapchat’s Santa Monica headquarters June 4. She was joined by more than 60 others, mostly family members of children who have died from fentanyl poisoning. One of those was Temecula’s Matt Capelouto, president of Drug Induced Homicide. His 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, died from fentanyl poisoning in December 2019, while home from college on winter break. He said that getting a pill these days is as easy as ordering a hamburger or pizza and having it delivered.

“One pill, maybe their first one, can kill them,” Capelouto said. “I don’t call them drug dealers; I call them death dealers. They deal death in the form of counterfeit pills.”

The public rally at Snapchat got a good amount of media coverage. Future events are being planned as this issue is only gaining traction. There are events like this being held throughout the nation since no one is immune from this out-of-control epidemic.

“It’s hard to say anything about the rally was a highlight considering the reason that led us all to be there but being around other people that know what you’re going through has a very special feeling I can’t quite put into words,” Neville said.

She also wants everyone to know that this can happen in any family. “Thinking ‘not my child’ or ‘my child would never do that’ is dangerous thinking,” she said. “Some kids won’t go about it the way Alexander did, but it could be something as simple as a friend giving them something for a headache.”

: Alexander Neville’s family rallied outside Snapchat headquarters in Santa Monica recently to bring awareness to the role social media plays in young people unknowingly obtaining counterfeit pills. Pictured from left are dad Aaron, sister Eden and mother, Amy Neville. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Capelouto said that federal law Section 230 protects social media giants from bearing any social responsibility.

“Section 230 basically gives immunity to social media, although it wasn’t set up for that purpose,” he said. “Now instead of trying to fix the unintended consequences of their sites, they hide behind this outdated protection.”

Neville said she is hoping that at the very least, social media platforms will start offering third party apps that can monitor activity, such as www.bark.us, instead of refusing to interface with them. Snapchat users are offered safety guidelines on the company’s website at www.snap.com but some feel it’s not enough.

Gretchen Peters of ACCO (Alliance to Counter Crime Online) said that the amount of screening and monitoring social media companies do is very small. Her organization ran the number of moderators per each Facebook user and found it would be equivalent to the state of Ohio having only one police officer.

Neville said, “Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 but we need to monitor more closely, ask more questions. In an ideal world, the ones who oversee these platforms would find ways to shut down these criminals’ accounts. If it’s illegal offline, it needs to be illegal online.”

Capelouto agrees. As a business owner in Temecula, he knows that if there was any type of nefarious activity going on inside his print shop he would not be in business for long and would be arrested for allowing the activity to take place and continue.

“Why should standards for retail space and cyberspace be different when it comes to allowing illegal activity?” he asked.

Ed Ternan has a different take on the problem. His son, Charlie was 22 when he took what he thought was a Percocet for back pain. He died in May 2020, three weeks from his college graduation in Santa Clara.

“The vast majority of the parents impacted by this have one thing in common – we didn’t know about fentanyl until it killed our loved one,” he said. “As we processed our shock, sadness and anger, we asked ourselves, ‘How did this happen?’ And the answers we found spurred us to action.”

Ternan said the practice of selling counterfeit prescription pills made of fentanyl, what he refers to as “fentapills,” has changed the game. The difference is the deception – fentapills are sold under false pretenses to young people who are either experimenting or self-medicating their pain or anxiety.

“This is not drug dealing as we have understood it for decades. Kids these days aren’t on a path to drug use by taking a pill – it’s more like a minefield,” he said. “This is a new problem that calls for a new response.”

He said he and his wife, Mary, discovered an information gap after Charlie died. Law enforcement, the medical community and first responders were all alarmed that fentapills were flooding the market. Stories were appearing in the newspapers and on TV.

“But that’s not where kids get their information today,” Ternan said. “If we were going to warn them, we needed to go where they spend their time and connect – and that is social media. So, we formed Song for Charlie (www.songforcharlie.org), a nonprofit charity focused on educating kids and parents about the dangers of counterfeit pills sold online. This is a matter of life and death.”

Ternan, whose website offers resources and “Real Talk About Fake Pills,” said he is heartened by the progress they are making. They are working with the people at Snap Inc., the company that makes the Snapchat app, and other social media companies and in consultation with experts in education, mental health and law enforcement to raise awareness and bring a sense of urgency to the problem.

“In order to reach as many kids as possible as quickly as possible, we had to get social media platforms involved – to make them allies, not adversaries,” he said. “That’s how we channeled our anguish into action.”

Capelouto said parents realize that fentanyl is a multi-headed monster that needs to be fought on many different levels in various ways. Social media is just one part of the chain in contributing to this epidemic and all the links in the chain are being targeted. He helped organize a “Bereaved Family Day – Victims of Illicit Narcotic Poisoning” event in Prescott Valley, Arizona, June 13.

“Every time I attend an event or talk to the press, I meet more and more people going through this same thing. If nothing else, we are hopefully at least changing the narrative that these are not accidental overdoses, but drug induced homicides,” he said.

The power and the reach of the internet is not lost on families who have lost loved ones to this preventable death. Many have created websites for organizations they have founded to share their stories, bring awareness to the epidemic and hopefully be able to prevent another family from having to go through the same tragedy.

Some of the resources available for more information, druginducedhomicide.org, ANFHelp.org, stopthevoid.org, songforcharlie.org, APALD.org, p-a-i-n.us, familiesagainstfentanyl.org and notinvainmoms.com.

Anyone who has lost a loved one to fentanyl and is seeking information, support and/or wants to get involved with fighting this epidemic can reach out to Capelouto personally at matt@druginducedhomicide.org.