From Grief to Action: Parents Raise Awareness of Dangers of ‘Fentapills’

By Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Cynthia is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering Northern California news.
February 17, 2022Updated: February 22, 2022

PASADENA, Calif.—The lives of Ed and Mary Ternan changed on May 14, 2020, when their 22-year-old son, Charlie Ternan, was found dead in his college dorm at Santa Clara University.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening, that he was gone, you know. And they said, ‘Oh, he died of pills,’ and I said, ‘Pills? What are you talking about, pills?’ He was just here, and we didn’t find any evidence of any pills. It’s just the worst kind of news any parent could receive,” Mary told NTD Television.

Charlie wasn’t an addict. His parents said he took a pill that he thought was Percocet to ease his back pain from a previous back surgery. But the pill Charlie took turned out to be a fake, instead containing highly potent fentanyl, which Ed and Mary call a “fentapill.”

“We discovered later that Charlie took one pill, and that’s an important part of the message. We don’t describe Charlie’s death as an overdose, and what’s happening these days is not overdose; this is poisoning,” Ed told NTD Television.

After their son’s death, Ed and Mary started to research the issue and found several other families who had also lost a child to fake prescription pills.

Soon, Ed and Mary created the organization “Song for Charlie” to raise awareness and tackle the issue of fentapills. The name “Song for Charlie”—inspired by a song one of Charlie’s favorite musicians wrote in memory of him—emerged from a sense of hope that the fake pills crisis can be solved.

“The ultimate goal through all of that is to get the kids to take some ownership of this issue. Because we think if the kids engage, then these deaths are preventable,” Ed said.

The Ternans’ mission is to warn teenagers, who they say are the primary victims, about the dangers of counterfeit pills made from fentanyl. they’re spreading the message on social media, in schools, and to other parents.

Epoch Times Photo
Ed and Mary Ternan talk with NTD Television on Feb. 1, 2022. (Annie Wang/NTD Television)

Unpacking the Issue of ‘Fentapills’

Ed and Mary coined the term “fentapill” to distinguish the problem from the overarching drug and opioid crisis. They see the fake prescription pill crisis as a subset of the fentanyl epidemic.

In 2020, fentanyl was responsible for nearly half of the drug-caused deaths in California. At the same time, the Department of Justice warned about a surge in fentanyl-laced fake pills.

“These young people are being sold what they think are safe, familiar prescription medications that they’ve used before, that they’ve gotten from the doctors, they’ve seen in the parents’ medicine cabinets,” Ed said. “So they take one, which is the recommended dose, and it kills them because it’s completely fake, and it’s made of this really potent fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid.”

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal. The DEA found that counterfeit pills can contain anywhere between .02 milligrams and 5.1 milligrams—more than twice the lethal dose—of fentanyl per tablet.

According to the Brookings Institution, over the past decade, China has played a key role in flooding the United States with fentanyl.

Ed and Mary said it’s impossible to visually tell the difference between fake and real prescription pills. While test strips can test for the presence of fentanyl, those tests only work if a pill is dissolved in water. Testing one pill from a bag doesn’t ensure that the rest of the bag is safe.

Epoch Times Photo
Mary, Charlie, and Ed Ternan in a photo on display at their home. (Annie Wang/NTD Television)

Drug Culture

The Ternans said that throughout the pandemic, some students living away from home may have been self-medicating to relieve stress or pain from injuries, and this may have contributed to the increase in demand for prescription pills.

They also believe that the demand driving drug traffickers and the production of fentapills, which are cheaper to make and buy than real prescription pills, can be attributed to the pill-popping culture.

“We have created in this society a kind of quick-fix, pill-popping culture. There’s a pill for everything, and it’s glorified in music and movies and in Netflix series, and it’s very common,” Ed said.

He and Mary said young kids today are buying unknown pills primarily from strangers online, leading to more accidental deaths from fake pills.

They characterize deaths caused by fentapills as poisonings rather than overdoses. They said overdoses happen when the person knowingly ingests an amount greater than the recommended dose of a substance.

Ed compared the situation to drinking whiskey. If one shot of whiskey is the recommended amount and a person drinks a whole bottle in one sitting and dies, that’s an overdose. The person is responsible for their own actions.

However, if a person drinks the recommended one shot of whiskey and dies, but the substance turns out to be liquid cyanide and food coloring, that’s poisoning, because the person ingested a substance he was unaware of.

Part of the organization’s mission is to spread the message that only pills prescribed by a doctor can be trusted as safe.

“Our saying is ‘no random pills,'” Ed said. “If it starts to be taboo among the kids, ‘uncool’ to share prescription pills, we think we can reduce a lot of death and sadness.”

Ed and Mary hope the idea that random pills are dangerous can become common sense. They said several people have contacted them with positive feedback since they’ve launched their organization.

Many have told Ed and Mary that they saw their posts on social media and are now aware of the pills’ existence. Many people said they’re warning their friends and family about fentapills.