Life as he knew it ended for Matt Capaluto two days before Christmas in 2019, when he found his 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, dead in his childhood bedroom in Temecula, California. Fury overtook mourning when authorities ruled his death an accident.
Home for the holidays, the college sommelier had taken a half-pill he had bought from a dealer on Snapchat. It turned out to be fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that helped drive drug overdose deaths in the US to more than 100,000 last year. “He was poisoned, and nothing was going to happen to the one who did it,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it.”
The self-described political liberal said the experience made him cynical about California’s reluctance to impose harsher sentences for drug offenses.
So Capaluto, a suburban father who once devoted all his time to running his print shop and raising his four daughters, launched a group called Drug Induced Homicide and traveled from his home to Sacramento in April, known as “Alexandra known as the Law”. The bill would have made it easier for California prosecutors to indict sellers of deadly drugs on murder charges.
Capaluto’s organization is part of a nationwide movement from parent-to-activists fighting the increasingly deadly drug crisis—and they’re challenging California’s theory that drugs are treated as a health problem rather than prosecuted by the criminal justice system. should go. Modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which sparked a movement in the 1980s, organizations such as Victims of Illegal Drugs and the Alexander Neville Foundation seek to raise public awareness and influence drug policy. One group, Mothers Against Drug Deaths, pays tribute by borrowing the acronym MADD.
The groups are pressuring state lawmakers for harsher penalties for dealers and lobbying technology companies to allow parents to monitor their children’s communications on social media. They put up billboards blaming politicians for the drug crisis and stage “die in” Protests against open-air drug markets in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach and San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhoods.
“This problem is being solved with the grassroots efforts of affected families,” said Ed Turnon, who runs the Pasadena-based group Song for Charlie, which focuses on educating youth about the dangers of counterfeit pills. .
Many parents rallied after a wave of deaths that began in 2019. Often, they involved high school or college students who thought they were taking OxyContin or Xanax they bought on social media, but were actually taking pills containing fentanyl. The drug came to the East Coast about a decade ago primarily through a supply of heroin, but Mexican drug cartels have introduced counterfeit pharmaceuticals with the highly addictive powder to California and Arizona to attract new customers.
In many cases, the victims of overdose are straight-up students or star athletes from the suburbs, raising an army of educated, engaged parents who are challenging the silence and stigma surrounding drug deaths. .
Ternan knew almost nothing about fentanyl when his 22-year-old son, Charlie, died in the bedroom of his fraternity home at Santa Clara University, just weeks before he was scheduled to graduate in spring 2020. had gone. Relatives determined from messages on Charlie’s phone that he had intended to buy Percocet, a pain reliever he had taken after back surgery two years earlier. First responders said a 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound college senior died within half an hour of swallowing the counterfeit pill.
Ternan discovered a string of similar deaths in other Silicon Valley communities. In 2021, 106 people died from fentanyl overdoses in Santa Clara County – up from 11 in 2018. The deaths included a student at Stanford University in San Jose and a 12-year-old girl.
With the help of two Google executives who lost sons to pills with fentanyl, Ternan persuaded Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms to donate ad space to warnings about counterfeit drugs. . Pressure from parent groups has also prompted Santa Monica-based Snapchat to deploy tools to track drug sales and is designed to make it harder for dealers to target minors.
Since the early days of the opioid epidemic, families of people dealing with addiction and those who died of overdose have supported each other in church basements and on online platforms from Florida to Oregon. Now, family-run organizations that emerged from California’s fentanyl crisis have begun collaborating with one another.
A network of parent groups and other activists that call themselves the California Peace Coalition was recently formed by Michael Schellenberger, a Berkeley writer and activist running for governor as an independent.
One critic of California’s progressive policies is Jackie Berlin, a legal processing clerk in the East Bay who started Mothers Against Drug Deaths—a name she called the achievements of Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner, a Fair Oaks housewife. , whose 13-year-old daughter was murdered by a drunk driver in 1980.
Cory, 30, from Berlin, has used heroin and fentanyl on the streets of San Francisco for seven years. “My son is not garbage,” said Berlin. “He deserves to have his life back.”
He believes the city’s decision not to charge dealers has allowed open-air narcotics markets to flourish in some neighborhoods and instead encourages people dealing with addiction to seek help. enabled the use of drugs.
In April, the group from Berlin spent $25,000 to put up a billboard in Union Square’s upscale retail district. On a dazzling night shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sign says: “Famous around the world for our brains, beauty and now, dirt-cheap fentanyl.”
This month, the group installed a sign in Sacramento along Interstate 80 that targets Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. Playing signage used in the parks, billboards have a “Welcome to Camp Fentanel” greeting against a shot of a homeless camp. A mobile billboard will also circle the state capitol for an undisclosed period, the group said.
Mothers Against Drug Deaths is calling for more options and funding for drug treatment and more arrests of dealers. The latter would mark a sharp turn from the gospel of “harm reduction,” a public health approach adopted by state and local officials that casts abstinence as unrealistic. Instead, the strategy calls for helping people dealing with addiction stay safe through things like needle exchanges and naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that has saved thousands of lives.
The original movement recounts the efforts in two major cities. Progressive prosecutors Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascon in Los Angeles have turned street dealers away from jail by throwing what they call a pointless game of whack-a-mole that punishes poor minorities.
California lawmakers are wary of repeating the mistakes of the drugs-on-drugs era and have blocked a series of bills that would toughen penalties for the sale of fentanyl. He says that this law will not achieve much except to pack the jails and jails of the state.
“We can put people in prison for a thousand years, and it won’t stop people from doing drugs, and it won’t stop them from dying,” State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said. “We know this from experience.”
Some parents agree. After watching her son cycle in and out of the criminal justice system on minor drug charges in the 1990s, Gretchen Burns Bergman became convinced that minor drug offenses on people, such as possession, are counterproductive.
In 1999, the San Diego fashion show producer started A New Path, which has advocated for marijuana legalization and an end to California’s “three strikes” law. A decade later, she formed Moms United, a nationwide coalition to end the War on Drugs. Today, both of her sons have recovered from heroin addiction with the help of “compassionate support” and work as drug counselors, she said.
“I’ve been around long enough to see the pendulum swing,” Burns Bergman said of the public’s shifting views on law enforcement.
In December, 22-year-old Brandon McDowell of Riverside was arrested and charged with selling a tablet that killed Matt Capaluto’s daughter. McDowell was charged with distributing fentanyl which resulted in death, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Although Alexandra’s law failed to make it out of committee, Capellotto pointed out that years of lobbying led to a stricter drunk driving law. He vowed not to give up on Bill, named for his daughter, who wrote poetry and was in love with David Bowie.
“I’m going back in front of them,” he said, “every year.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that conducts in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a thriving non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.