The New MADD Movement: Parents Rise Up Against Drug-Related Teen Deaths

Life as he knew it ended for Matt Capelouto two days before Christmas in 2019, when he found his 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, dead in her childhood bedroom in Temecula, California. Rage took over from grief when authorities ruled her death an accident.

The sophomore, home for the holidays, had taken half a pill she had bought from a seller on Snapchat. It turned out to be fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that helped push the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States to more than 100,000 last year. “She was poisoned and nothing was going to happen to the person who did it,” he said. “I couldn’t stand this.”

The self-proclaimed political moderate said the experience made him cynical about California’s reluctance to impose tough penalties for drug-related offenses.

So Capelouto, the suburban dad who once spent all his time running his printing business and raising his four daughters, started a group called Drug Induced Homicide and traveled from his Sacramento home in April to lobby for legislation known as “Alexandra’s Law”. The bill would have made it easier for California prosecutors to convict sellers of deadly drugs for homicide.

Capelouto’s organization is part of a nationwide movement of parents-turned-activists fighting the increasingly deadly drug crisis – and they are challenging the Californian doctrine that drugs should be treated as a health issue rather than prosecuted by the criminal justice system. Modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which sparked a movement in the 1980s, organizations such as Victims of Illicit Drugs and the Alexander Neville Foundation seek to raise awareness and influence drug policy. One group, Mothers Against Drug Deaths, pays homage to MADD by borrowing its acronym.

The groups are lobbying state lawmakers for tougher penalties for pressure tech dealers and companies to allow parents to monitor their children’s social media communications. They erect billboards blaming politicians for the drug crisis and stage “Die in” protests against outdoor drug markets in Venice Beach in Los Angeles and the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco.

“This issue is going to be resolved through the local efforts of affected families,” said Ed Ternan, who leads the Pasadena-based Song for Charlie group, which focuses on educating young people about the dangers of counterfeit pills.

Many parents have stepped up after a wave of deaths that began in 2019. Often these were high school or college students who thought they were taking OxyContin or Xanax purchased on social media but were actually ingesting pills containing fentanyl. The drug first hit the East Coast nearly a decade ago, largely due to the heroin supply, but Mexican drug cartels have since introduced counterfeit pharmaceuticals laced with highly addictive in California and Arizona to attract new customers.

In many cases, the overdose victims are straight college students or star suburban athletes, giving rise to an army of educated and committed parents who challenge the silence and stigma surrounding drug-related deaths.

Ternan knew almost nothing about fentanyl when his 22-year-old son, Charlie, died in the bedroom of his fraternity house at Santa Clara University weeks before he was to graduate in the spring of 2020. Relatives have determined from messages on Charlie’s phone that he had intended to purchase Percocet, a prescription painkiller he had taken after back surgery two years earlier. First responders said the 6ft 2in, 235lb senior died within half an hour of swallowing the counterfeit pill.

Ternan uncovered 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 Stanford University sophomore and a 12-year-old girl in San Joseph.

With the help of two Google executives who lost sons to fentanyl-containing pills, Ternan persuaded Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms to give ad space to warnings on counterfeit drugs. Pressure from parent groups has also prompted Santa Monica-based Snapchat to roll out tools to detect drug sales and restrictions designed to make it harder for dealers to target minors.

Since the early days of the opioid epidemic, the families of people struggling with addiction and those who have died of drug overdoses have supported each other in church basements and on online platforms of Florida to Oregon. Now, family organizations that emerged from California’s fentanyl crisis have begun to cooperate with each other.

A network of parent groups and other activists calling itself the California Peace Coalition was recently formed by Michael Shellenberger, a Berkeley author and activist running for governor as an independent.

One of the critics of progressive California politics is Jacqui Berlinn, an East Bay paralegal who started Mothers Against Drug Deaths – a name she chose in honor of the accomplishments of Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner, a Fair Oaks housewife whose 13 year old daughter was killed in 1980 by a drunk driver.

Berlinn’s son, Corey, 30, has been using heroin and fentanyl for seven years on the streets of San Francisco. “My son is not trash,” Berlinn said. “He deserves his life back.”

She thinks the city’s decision not to charge dealers has allowed open-air narcotics markets to flourish in some neighborhoods and encouraged drug use, rather than encouraging people struggling with addiction to get help.

In April, the Berlinn group spent $25,000 erecting a billboard in the upscale Union Square shopping district. In a glowing nighttime photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sign reads: “Famous around the world for our brains, our beauty, and now cheap fentanyl.

This month, the group put up a sign along Interstate 80 toward Sacramento that targets Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Playing off the signage used in parks, the billboard features a “Welcome to Camp Fentanyl” greeting against a shot of a homeless encampment. The group said a mobile billboard will also circle the state capitol for an undisclosed time.

New Mothers Against Drug Deaths billboards on I-80 in Sacramento. @StopDrugDeaths pic.twitter.com/3UdXh9BUq5

— Mothers Against Drug Deaths (@JacquiBerlinn) May 12, 2022

Mothers Against Drug Deaths calls for more drug treatment options and funding and more drug dealer arrests. The latter would mark a radical departure from the gospel of “harm reduction,” a public health approach taken by state and local authorities that views abstention as unrealistic. Instead, this strategy calls for helping people struggling with addiction stay safe through things like needle exchanges and naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that has saved thousands of lives.

The parent movement echoes recall efforts taking place in two major cities. Progressive prosecutors Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón in Los Angeles have backed off from throwing street dealers in jail, what they call an unnecessary mole game that punishes poor minorities.

California lawmakers fear repeating the mistakes of the War on Drugs era and have blocked a series of bills that would toughen penalties for fentanyl sales. They say the legislation would accomplish little except fill state prisons and jails.

“We can throw people in jail for a thousand years, and it won’t stop people from using drugs, and it won’t stop them from dying,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco ). “We know that from experience.”

Some parents agree. After watching her son go in and out of the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses in the 1990s, Gretchen Burns Bergman became convinced that the charge of minor drug offenses such as possession, is counterproductive.

In 1999, the San Diego fashion show producer launched A New Path, which advocated for the legalization of marijuana and an end to California’s “three strikes” law. A decade later, she formed Moms United to End the War on Drugs, a national coalition. Now her two sons have recovered from heroin addiction with “compassionate support” and are working as addiction counsellors, she said.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to see the pendulum swing,” Burns Bergman said of changing public views on law enforcement.

In December, 22-year-old Brandon McDowell of Riverside was arrested and charged with selling the tablet that killed Matt Capelouto’s daughter. McDowell was charged with distributing fentanyl causing death, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Although Alexandra’s law failed to make it out of committee, Capelouto pointed out that years of lobbying led to the passage of tougher drunk driving laws. He vowed not to drop the bill named after his daughter, who wrote poetry and loved David Bowie.

“I’m going to be back in front of them,” he said, “every year.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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