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Charlie’s overdose: why we need to tell young people about fake pills

Our son, Charlie, died on May 14, 2020, from a counterfeit pill

We We lost our youngest son, Charlie, on May 14, 2020, to a single counterfeit Percocet. He was 22.

My wife, Mary, and I lived every parent’s worst nightmare. We got the dreaded knock on the door late at night. Our pastor got us out of bed and told us, “There’s been an accident, and it’s bad. We’re not sure what’s happened, but Charlie has died.”

There is no way to prepare for such shocking news. I’ll skip the details of our immediate reactions, which any parent can imagine. We were dumbfounded, numb, and confused. Amid the chaos, we questioned some of Charlie’s friends and a sheriff’s deputy at the scene. They said, “We think it was pills.” This didn’t make any sense to us.

Charlie had been living with us for two months since the initial lockdowns during the early days of Covid. We didn’t see any signs of drug misuse, depression, or suicidal behavior. We were vaguely aware that occasionally taking Xanax to chill out and play video games or watch TV was socially acceptable among kids Charlie’s age. But how much Xanax would our 6’2” son have to take to overdose?

The next morning, we spoke to the homicide investigator from the same sheriff’s department. He said, “We’ll wait for the toxicology report, but I am convinced Charlie died from fentanyl. He would be the 7th fatality from fake Percocet pills in our county in the past 10 days.”

It was our “What’s This Fentanyl?” moment

What’s this fentanyl he’s taking about? How did Charlie get it? What’s going on here?

We quickly learned that drug traffickers are pressing fake pills designed to look exactly like the legitimate prescription medications that are familiar to our kids – Percocet, Oxycodone, and Xanax. They advertise them on social media and pass them off as the real thing. But they are 100% fake. The only active ingredient in these bogus pills is illegally manufactured fentanyl.

Who is telling the kids?

It didn’t take too much Googling to discover that Charlie was among a growing number of young people to fall prey to the fentanyl crisis. We found other families whose children had died the same way – after taking a single pill they were told was a commercial medication but was, in fact, a counterfeit made of fentanyl (we nicknamed them “fentapills”).

We noticed that this trend was known in some circles. Police, first responders, and emergency room doctors were concerned about the increasing number of fentanyl poisonings they were encountering. There were public alerts on the websites of the local sheriff’s department, medical examiner and DEA office. We found newspaper articles and local TV news stories about recent fatalities.

That’s when we identified the problem: Kids don’t get their news from local TV or government websites. Those warnings would never have reached Charlie and his friends. If we were going to prevent other families from sharing our tragic fate, we would have to take the message directly to young people – where they are and in their language.

We decided to launch a website and post on social media. Now, two years later, we have reached tens of millions of youth, parents, and teachers, and our website is loaded with resources for schools and families. 

Real talk about fake pills

First and foremost, tell the truth. Today’s youth are growing up in an age of information and, importantly, misinformation. Their “this is rubbish” detectors are always set to “high.” The slightest exaggeration threatens your credibility with them. Stick with the facts.

Second, young people today prefer to conduct their own research. Rather than tell them what to do (or not do), give them the resources they need to learn more on their own. This validates and empowers them.

Third, appeal to young people’s sense of peer affinity. Adolescent brains are designed to take risks, and so kids often underestimate their own vulnerability in any given situation. The trick is to make them understand the harm that might come to their friends. At this age, “take care of your friends” is a more relatable message than “be careful.”

What we’re telling young people

  • The US drug market has been flooded with counterfeit prescription pills made of fentanyl.  You must assume any pill you come across online, on campus, or on the street is fake and potentially deadly.
  • Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs are here to stay. They are cheap and potent, which makes them really profitable for drug dealers. This is the drug landscape your generation is navigating.
  • This is not your fault. It is a recent development. Neither your parents nor your older siblings faced this new risk. But it is your reality.
  • Your friends are at risk because they don’t understand that fentanyl is used to make fake pills and is hidden in other street drugs like coke and molly.
  • You can protect yourself and your friends by educating yourself and spreading the word.

Ultimately, our message is a hopeful one: “The drug supply is more volatile, unpredictable, and risky than ever before. But you can stay safe by getting educated and making informed decisions. Tell everyone you know – No Random Pills.”

Many people who lose their lives to an overdose have taken fentanyl accidentally, intending to take a safe, familiar commercial medication. By spreading the word about fake pills and the emergence of fentanyl (and other synthetics) in the drug supply chain, we can help save the lives of young people and prevent more families from experiencing the tragedy of losing a child.

Reference: Charlie’s family. Song For Charlie. https://www.songforcharlie.org/. Accessed January 17, 2023.

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"Tell everyone you know – No Random Pills"
Charlie and his parents, Ed and Mary
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