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Parents of poisoned sons warn of deadly 'fentapill' danger

by Evan Schreiber

Thursday, December 2nd 2021

Jennifer and Jon Epstein talked to KATU about the death of their son, Cal, from accidental fentanyl poisoning. The family has joined together with others who have gone through similar tragedies to share a warning about the deadly danger. (KATU)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The door opens and a light flicks on in a bedroom filled with emotions. It's been left mostly untouched, with the same posters on the walls and awards on the shelves.

Jennifer and Jon Epstein are continuing to honor their son Cal inside their home in Northwest Portland. As they move forward, day by day, and share Cal's story with the community, they continue to be reminded of the past, facing questions about how he died.

"They ask what problems Cal had or what signs did we miss," Jennifer said.

Jennifer and Jon say the signs weren't so clear with Cal and that not every overdose death, of the 100,000 killed in the past year in the United States, is one and the same.

"We knew he had anxiety. We knew he had some stressors. But a lot of teenagers have stressors and Cal was getting help," Jennifer explained, telling KATU there were no signs of an addiction or substance use disorder in their son's life.

But in December 2020, while home for the holiday break after his first semester at the University of Hawaii, Jon said Cal may have been stressed.

It led to a mistake they never could have expected.

"He sought out an [OxyContin] and he got it on Snapchat. But it turned out to be filled with fentanyl. And he never stood a chance."

The Epsteins found Cal unresponsive in his bedroom. They started CPR and called the paramedics. He did not survive.

Cal was unknowingly poisoned by fentanyl. The synthetic illicit opioid is often mixed into counterfeit prescription pills being sold illegally.

"Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a lethal dose of fentanyl is about two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt.

As the Epsteins acknowledged, people think they're being given real Xanax, OxyContin, or Adderall, by a drug dealer.

"This young culture is used to ordering up a pizza or an Uber and you can order up a pill just that easily," Jon said. "There's so much of it out there and it's coming packaged in this deceptive way. I see it as kids are being swept up in the tide of illicit fentanyl."

Scrutiny of the substance has spawned a community.

"We're members in a small but, sadly, growing club. We lost our children to a problem that we had no knowledge of before it impacted our families," said Ed Ternan, the co-founder of the non-profit organization Song For Charlie. "We share this really strong commitment to prevent other families from going through the tragedies that we've suffered."

Ternan says his son's death by fentanyl poisoning last year in California, at the age of 22, set him and his wife off on a path to warn his son's peers.

The organization says Charlie was familiar with Xanax and sometimes took one when "he had time to chill and play video games. He also knew about Percocet, which he had been prescribed after his 2018 back surgery."

Charlie was found by his friends, unresponsive in his college dorm room, in May of 2020. He was three weeks away from his college graduation.

"The shock that comes with the death of an otherwise healthy young person with no advance warning is extremely disorienting for families," Ternan said.

"After the sudden loss of their son Charlie, Ed and Mary Ternan created Song for Charlie with one goal: to bring awareness to counterfeit prescription pills being sold online targeting young people," the organization explains. They're focused on so-called "fentapills," also known as a fake prescription pill made of fentanyl, and they're focusing their attention on younger people.

The Ternans said they were shocked to find that the scope of the fentapill problem was well known among medical and law enforcement authorities, but not by the most vulnerable group – young people between the ages of 13-24.

The Ternan family and the organization hope to meet these younger people where they are at - on social media - as they urge a message of caution.

"It's not, 'don't do drugs,' it's 'don't do these drugs,'" Ternan told KATU. "You need to take self-medication with prescription pills that you get from some random person off of your playlist."

Ed Ternan shows a picture of his son, Charlie, to KATU's Evan Schreiber during a Zoom interview. Ternan co-founded the organization Song For Charlie after his son's death from an accidental fentanyl overdose. (KATU)

But the DEA says counterfeit pills are popping up at record levels.

The number of DEA-seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430% since 2019, the agency said. DEA lab testing reveals that two out of every five pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the deadly crisis hit a record high. An estimated 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year, a never-before-seen milestone that health officials say is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.

The new data shows many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs — one reason that deaths from methamphetamines and cocaine also are rising.

Data also shows younger people are unaware of the severity of fentanyl. One study shows they don't rate it nearly as dangerous as other, less immediately harmful substances.

Research done in October by Snap Inc., the company that developed the social media platform Snapchat, found that when asked to rate how dangerous various drugs are, young Americans were most likely to say heroin (61%) and cocaine (50%) are extremely dangerous, while the share who say the same about fentanyl (37%) trails considerably.

"I think if you asked a teenager, 'Hey, you want to come into a back room and do heroin with me? Come shoot up with me.' Most teenagers would say, 'no.' But to a teenager, if somebody says, 'Hey, will you try this pill?' They don't recognize that they're taking something potentially more deadly and powerful than heroin," Jennifer said.

"People are going to make their own decisions. Especially these growing, young adults. They're going to make their own decisions. But when they have the information, I think they make the right ones," Jon said. "People think this is not something that could happen to them. We're here to say it can happen to anyone with the introduction of fake pills that are filled with deadly, illicit fentanyl."

Jennifer is working for Song For Charlie now, too, and she's opening the door for other families to have, what could be, a life-saving discussion.

"Unless you can be 100% sure that your kid will never experiment, then you can't feel like you're safe and you have to have conversations."

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