When Matt Capelouto spoke up for the first time when he took to the podium back in February to plead with the Temecula City Council to pay attention to the fentanyl problem, he couldn’t have known how far his fight would take him.
But after months of organizing, rallies and connecting with fellow parents who lost children after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine – he and his wife made their way to Ohio, Oct. 26, as part of a coalition to meet with James Carroll, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the United States.
They were two of seven California parents to attend the meeting as a coalition of 25 parents and advocates who recently formed a new organization called Coalition for Awareness of Synthetic Analogues.
The meeting in Columbus, Ohio, included Carroll, Ohio attorney general Dave Yost; Bishop Robert Brennan of the Diocese of Columbus; Andy Wilson, senior adviser to Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine; Carol O’Brien, chief counsel to Yost, and Dr. Anahi Ortiz, chief medical examiner of Franklin County in Ohio.
Their purpose was to advocate on behalf of the children they had lost and the thousands of people dying from the drug each year.
“We were seated around tables that had been placed in a large rectangular formation with Mr. Carroll and his staff at the head,” Capelouto said in a Facebook post. “Starting at the front, we stood one at a time as our name, our child’s name, how old they were and how they died (fentanyl poisoning), were read aloud. Most of us held a picture of our child as we were introduced. At the end of the introductions, you had 25 parents holding a picture of their child, standing and looking at Mr. Carroll. His empathy showed as he wiped the tears from his cheek.”
The Capeloutos were holding a photo of their daughter, Alexandra, a 2017 graduate of Great Oak High School who died in her parent’s home Dec. 23, 2019, after purchasing a counterfeit Percocet pill made of fentanyl.
“The 12-hour-long marathon meeting was overwhelming to say the least,” Capelouto said in his post. “The stories told and the information learned will live within me forever. As important as the public officials are that graciously attended this meeting, I was most compelled by being in a room with 25 other parents who know a pain like no other. It was not a ‘pity party,’ more just a comforting feeling. We laughed. We cried; we instantly formed the deepest of friendships.”
Valley News held a teleconference call with Capelouto and Michael Gray, father of Amanda, who died of fentanyl poisoning Jan. 11, 2018. Gray headed the meeting in Ohio.
“These kids were not, for want of a better term, addicted to anything,” Gray said. “I try to avoid words like addict and addicted because I think it’s sort of a bit of a misnomer. I try to stick with substance-use disorder. Our kids didn’t have a substance-use disorder.”
“Five of us dads got together over the last year or so, we have similar stories,” Capelouto said. “(We) didn’t feel that our kids fell into the stereotypical drug addict that you could expect to die from a traditional drug overdose. Now we’re all very close friends, tied together by our kids.”
Gray said the group came together through the sharing of their stories and formed to combat what he calls the “new paradigm.”
“It occurred very, very suddenly in 2013,” Gray said. “There’s this paradigm shift that occurred in 2013… It is statistically valid to look at the fact that deaths occurred at an incredible rate in 2014 because of that paradigm shift. It was fentanyl from China, and it happened in 2013, which is quite different from 1922 to 2012.
“What happened in 2013? Everything changed. Everything you knew about drugs, drug use, drug abuse… kind of needs to go out the window because everything’s so much different,” he said.
Capelouto agreed, saying had any of the children of parents involved in the group taken the drugs they intended to take before 2013, “they would be alive today because there would not have been fentanyl.”
Makers of the illegal street drugs are cutting fentanyl into drugs like Oxycontin or oxycodone, Xanax, cocaine, and heroin to get addicts hooked faster, and it’s resulting in a startling number of deaths.
Recently, San Diego County health officials revealed a sharp increase in fentanyl overdose deaths, with such fatalities rising by 126% in the first six months of 2020 over a comparable period in 2019.
In 2016, there were 10 overdoses related to fentanyl in Riverside County. In 2017, that number grew to 28 overdose deaths. In 2018, there were 53.
In 2019, according to numbers still being calculated by the Riverside Overdose Data to Action team assembled by Riverside University Health System – Public Health, 122 could be attributed to the inclusion of fentanyl in overdose deaths.
“In terms of specifically for fentanyl, it’s really scary,” Wendy Hetherington, chief of epidemiology and program evaluation/vital records for Riverside Overdose Data to Action at RCPH, said. “If you look at our fentanyl overdoses, we had five, maybe, a year since 2013 and then starting in 2015 the number of fentanyl overdoses doubled. Then, 2019, our most recent year, it pretty much skyrocketed.”
Gray explained how much different the issue of drug use in America is with the opioid epidemic and how it relates to fentanyl and plant-based drugs such as heroin.
“Fentanyl is a whole different animal, because there is the option of the dealer and the trafficker to sell plant-based opiates, which are infinitely less dangerous,” he said. “Heroin is orders of magnitudes less dangerous than synthetic opioids. They have a choice to make whether to sell that infinitely dangerous, lethal chemical. And they’re choosing it at a terrifying pace.
“Why? Because there’s a scale out there. Every businessman makes a decision on that scale. Everything we do gets subjected to scale of risk/reward type sales on the scale.
“Something needs to be done because they’re using what is the worst chemical warfare agent that is available to rogue terrorist nations and they’re selling it as a recreational drug on our street. Killing people at a rate that’s just breathtaking,” Gray said.
He said they are working on how to shift the dynamic of the supply side of the issue.
“There’s really nothing we can do on the demand side, because those kids aren’t using regularly. They’re not addicted; there’s no treatment that’s going to help them,” Gray said. “They went to a party once. All we can do on that sort of the analog of the demand side is to get a lot of awareness out there.
“The good thing about Amanda and Alex and Daniel and Charlie and Eddie is that they didn’t have their minds tortured by long-term drug use. They had their sense about them. If they really appreciated the danger of that decision they made, they wouldn’t have made it; there’s no question. None of them would have made it,” he said.
Gray said they want to replace a lot of the “demand side work” – treatment, medically assisted, harm reduction, drug diversion programs – and replace those with awareness campaigns.
He said there is a law enforcement component to the problem, but he said he thinks it goes higher than that.
“It’s really a trafficking issue, not a street-dealing issue, so by definition it’s those traffickers that we’re going after and more importantly, it’s a trade issue with China,” Gray said. “Because it’s all coming from them, and it’s all illegal, and it’s all done intentionally.
“You have to start at the trafficking level, by the time it gets to the street, there’s probably not a lot we can do,” he said.
The two men said they were worried a bit about impending changes that could happen when and if a new administration takes over in Washington, but they are committed to continuing the fight regardless.
“What we’re trying to do is create this think tank, NGO type of organization that will give people the sort of position statements and various things,” Gray said. “Bring back what our affiliates are working on and work that into position statements. They will work at the local level and we will work not only at the national level but at the local level as well.”
Capelouto has helped to create a drug-induced homicide organization to pressure the state of California to create laws that will enable district attorneys to charge drug dealers with crimes more akin to murder.
“I think it’s got the potential to really go like wildfire across the country,” Gray said.
Capelouto said he has been working on a proposal with local lawmakers that will be released within weeks regarding a new rule that can be used by prosecutors to impose stiffer penalties and charges against drug dealers.
Gray has proposed treating people charged with distributing fentanyl similarly to charges brought against people using weapons of mass destruction or terrorism.
“We can bring some accountability to the normal putting people at risk drug dealing, but have that big slammer of terrorism, chemical warfare agent person who really is doing that,” Gray said. “I think we have to thread that needle and I think we can needle. I think we can.”
The men said they are making headway on the issue with lawmakers, even if sometimes their bills don’t make it through in state government.
“The bill that we failed on in the 115th Congress, basically I got so many congressional members to come around and understand the problem through all the debate of that bill,” Gray said.
Editor’s note: To read more about the fentanyl epidemic in our communities and throughout the nation, visit www.myvalleynews.com and search “fentanyl.”
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.