On the morning of July 25, 2020, Matthew Thomas took what he believed was Percocet, a prescription drug for pain relief. He died moments later, a victim of fentanyl poisoning.
On Jan. 26, 2019, Austen Babcock took what he believed was cocaine. Unbeknownst to him, it was laced with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid. He died shortly after, another victim of fentanyl poisoning.
April Babcock, Austen’s mother, and Wendy Thomas, Matthew’s mother, have both become activists to raise awareness about illicit fentanyl. Babcock is the founder of Lost Voices of Fentanyl, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness on illicit fentanyl, and Thomas is the founder of Matthew’s Voice.
Both told The Epoch Times that obtaining illicit fentanyl is as easy as ordering a pizza.
“I talk to all these moms [in Lost Voices of Fentanyl], and their kids go on social media and literally ordered drugs just like a pizza. It’s just like Uber Eats. Well, now it’s like Uber drugs,” Babcock said.
“Some of these parents in the group literally saw the dealer on their Ring. They’d pull up into their driveway, and their kid would run out. I mean, these pills are cheap.
“We got fake Adderall pills on social media. Fake Xanax. Fake Percocet. I mean, all the pills are fake. These kids just don’t realize they’re literally buying death. They don’t know.”
Thomas agreed and noted that when she has given presentations at schools, kids have told her that they hear about Percocet and Xanax in music videos, and when they buy pills over social media, that’s what they think they’re getting.
“But it’s not. They need to know that 6 in 10 pills are … potentially deadly,” she said, citing Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) data.
Families Against Fentanyl reported that in 2021, fentanyl poisoning was the leading cause of death among Americans aged 18 to 45.
And in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 4,765 children and young adults aged 14–23 died from the use of synthetic opioids—more than double the 1,984 deaths in 2018.
Babcock said she thinks the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl is significantly underreported.
“There’s a family … that’s pretty definite their kid died from fentanyl because they found fentanyl at his house. But guess what: He was never tested!” she told The Epoch Times. “[The death certificate] says he died from cocaine. No, he didn’t. He died from fentanyl.
“So [that family] is trying to pass a bill in Maryland, so every hospital has to test for fentanyl. And, you know, I know there’s places that still don’t test for fentanyl, but I had no idea that was going on in my own state, and that’s criminal! Those stats are a very lowball number.
“I hear it all the time: ‘They didn’t test for fentanyl.’ How are we ever going to get the right data?”
Babcock started Lost Voices of Fentanyl, a Facebook group, in 2020. The group now has more than 24,000 members, and every day, Babcock said she hears from parents who have lost a child to fentanyl poisoning.
“Why isn’t our government warning the public? They’re not warning them!” she said. “I mean, I know certain states are doing it. Like I know, in my state, Maryland, I’ve seen two fentanyl commercials. And that’s great. That’s fine and dandy, but it’s not good enough. You know, teenagers don’t watch that anyway. We need a COVID-like response from our government for fentanyl.”
Growing Misunderstood Problem
In 2020, there were a reported 91,799 total drug-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2021, that number had climbed to 106,719. In both years, approximately 82 percent of deaths involved at least one opioid, with fentanyl being the most common.
“I started Mathew’s Voice because my son Matthew died of fentanyl poisoning in 2020, in July. He was 20 years old,” Thomas told The Epoch Times.
“He took what was supposed to be Percocet, and it was fentanyl. And so I decided to go ahead and focus on high schools. I’ve been to several high schools in North Carolina, and the biggest thing that surprises me is that most of them have not even heard of illicit fentanyl.
“I thought maybe if Matthew had heard about it sooner …”
Babcock concurred, “What I’m seeing is most of these people have no idea what fentanyl is. They’re getting their [deceased] kids’ toxicology reports back, and they had no warning to even warn their kids about fentanyl. Like they just didn’t know.”
Thomas and Babcock are both quick to point out that what they’re talking about isn’t the pharmaceutical fentanyl prescribed to treat severe pain—often post-surgery and for advanced-stage cancer. Instead, they’re talking about illicit fentanyl found in counterfeit pills.
In 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert, warning that 6 out of 10 fake prescription pills contained “a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.”
“More than half of the fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills being trafficked in communities across the country now contain a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said.
“These pills are being mass-produced by the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel in Mexico. Never take a pill that wasn’t prescribed directly to you. Never take a pill from a friend. Never take a pill bought on social media. Just one pill is dangerous, and one pill can kill.”
Despite that warning, Song for Charlie—yet another nonprofit started by grieving parents, after their son Charlie Ternan’s fentanyl poising death—found that only 36 percent of teens are aware that fentanyl is used to create counterfeit pills. And that lack of awareness has real-world consequences.
Song for Charlie reported that since 2018, drug deaths of teens have increased three times faster than in any other age group, and most of those deaths are attributable to fentanyl.
“Last year, I had a group of about 200 seniors that I presented to, and before I started, I asked them how many had heard of fentanyl, and only about a quarter of them raised their hands,” Thomas said. “Just a quarter! And that’s pretty scary.”
But it isn’t just teens and young adults who are unaware of the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills; it’s their parents, too. In 2018, Tracy Ritter’s son, Evan Ritter, died of an accidental overdose.
Tracy Ritter explained that she and her husband experimented when they were younger and believed that Evan was going through a similar phase.
“Many parents experience more of the drugs and alcohol use from their kids through middle and high school years,” she told The Epoch Times.
“We as parents felt, you know, that things would change for Evan. And that was something that was going on in high school, but he would grow up and graduate from school and move forward onto college, and that wouldn’t be such a concern for us. Every young person does this kind of thing.”
However, Evan continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol through college and even went to an inpatient treatment center for help. In the end, the addiction was too much.
Ritter now works as a family support specialist for Advocates for Recovery Colorado and co-chairs a work group within Colorado’s state response to the drug crisis, the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.
She helps guide families through their loved ones’ addictions and, all too often, their deaths.
Ritter explained that her story isn’t unique. Parents in the Affected Families and Friends work group often say they thought that their son or daughter was going through a phase of experimentation, only to find out that the addiction was out of control.
“It’s heartbreaking, you know, when you discover that the disease of addiction is so powerful that it still has that power over [addicts] with the best intentions [of beating addiction] in mind,” Ritter said.
Babcock said, “We’ve got 13- and 14-year-old kids walking around hooked on [fentanyl], and they really don’t even realize it. And even the adults. By the time they realize they’re actually hooked on fentanyl, it is just too late. They’re dependent on it.
“Once you depend on it, it’s almost a miracle for the people that get off that. I mean, it’s way more potent than heroin. You think heroin withdrawal is bad? Not compared to fentanyl.”
Awareness Is Key
Ritter said of experimenting with drugs: “I think everybody is in different places and has different reasons for using substances in their life. I hear from family members that their son or daughter often started, as Evan did, probably in middle school at about age 13.
“However, that being said, I think another area I’m trying to learn more and more about, piecing it all together, is the mental health issues piece. Sometimes the people that have experienced drugs and substance use at an early age, or later in life, is because of a traumatic experience that’s happened to them.”
Ritter noted as a caution that when someone young tries drugs, they increase their chances of developing an addiction.
“When you start younger, the brain isn’t developed. The brain isn’t actually developed fully until about 25 years of age. So because of that immature brain development, there is that greater chance for that addiction than if you started later in life.”
Ritter said that to help reverse the escalating drug trend, schools must invest in training and implement campaigns that increase awareness of mental health concerns and drug use. One she believes is effective is Mental Health First Aid for Youth, which teaches students how to spot someone experiencing an addiction or mental health crisis.
“It’s especially important for fellow students to take [the course] and to be proactive, so they can look for the signs. And be willing to talk about this more than it is talked about. Because it’s still stigmatized, and I think that would help destigmatize substance use and mental health issues,” Ritter said.
Babcock said she thinks the government needs to increase fentanyl awareness by putting campaign ads on social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram.
“They did it for COVID. Why are they not doing it for fentanyl when it’s the leading cause of death of our youth? These are our future generation that’s getting wiped off the planet Earth,” she said.
Drug overdose statistics aren’t yet available for 2022 and 2023. But the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration told The Epoch Times via email, “As we exit the acute stages of the pandemic, there is consensus that substance use in [youth] is increasing again.”
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