No Addiction Required: How Fake Drugs Are Quickly Killing Gen-Z

Fentanyl-laced pills being manufactured to resemble brand-name painkillers are now advertised all over social media. It’s killing young people nationwide before addiction sets in.

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was still tearing across the country, May 14, 2020 was an otherwise perfect Northern California spring day—particularly on the campus of Santa Clara University, where palm trees were swaying in the morning breeze running through the 171-year-old institution’s campus. As is a time-honored college tradition, members of the SCU senior class who’d remained at the campus were mostly goofing off while waiting for graduation day. That May morning, four members of the Cal Phi fraternity were off to play golf. The young men wanted their fraternity brother, Charlie Ternan, to join, but he declined, as later in the day he had the final phone interview for an analyst position he was hoping to land. Ternan wanted to remain focused. 

That was the last time they saw their buddy alive. Ternan died alone later that afternoon after ingesting a single counterfeit pill he’d bought believing it to be Percocet, the painkiller he’d been prescribed in the past for his chronic back pain. But this pill was laced with fentanyl, which is what ultimately killed him. The 22-year-old’s death was one of the more than 100,000 deaths in 2021 that were caused by the synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and an amount equivalent to a few grains of sand can be deadly.

Ternan didn’t obtain the pill that killed him at a pharmacy, but ordered it online—it was just one of the thousands of pharmaceutical look-alikes found across the web, sales of which have flooded the web over the last few years. Now, a lethal epidemic that began with the overprescription of pharmaceutical opioids is rapidly expanding among the country’s youth. 

“People got used to thinking pills were harmless—after all, a doctor said it was okay,” Dr. Jason Doctor, associate professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, told LAMag. “Now, those prescriptions have been curtailed and recreational users have to find pills illegally, mostly on the internet.” 

Not enough people understand what fentanyl is, says Bill Bodner, a special agent in charge of the Los Angeles branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “The pills and powders coming out of Mexico look real but the drug dealers don’t measure dosages, so they use too much, killing unsuspecting recreational users, as well as addicts.” 

Mary and Ed Ternan with their son, Charlie.

And Fentanyl has now disrupted the illicit drug trade. In addition to replacing now-unattainable prescription opioids after a crackdown on prescriptions, synthetic and hyper-potent fentanyl made in underground labs is replacing street heroin—a much more expensive and logistically challenging drug to process and distribute. According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl had increased nearly 50-fold from 2018 to 2021. Meanwhile, there was a 30 percent rise in fentanyl-related deaths in 2010 and there has been a near doubling over the past five years. In L.A. County, more than 60 percent of all drug-related deaths have involved fentanyl. And the DEA seized more than three million counterfeit pills suspected to contain fentanyl in 2021—a three-fold increase in seizures from 2019’s data. 

This fentanyl epidemic is also the result of the culture of pill-popping that gestated among America’s teens over the last two decades; increasingly, it seemed young people were being handed a prescription for something to numb, relieve, or for them to just chill out as they gathered at pill parties to pop whatever was at hand. Then the overdoses increased and the opioid prescriptions crackdown of 2019 led to a sudden drought of readily-available pharmaceuticals. Ultimately, the crackdown backfired and the party didn’t stop as teens were quick to find online avenues to obtain more pills.

It was the dishonesty and failure of the so-called War on Drugs, with its never-ending doomsday rhetoric, that contributed to this new and dangerous drug environment, according to Joseph Friedman, an M.D./Ph.D. Candidate at UCLA. “Kids were told that all drugs were deadly and to ‘just say no.’ They weren’t given any nuance about the relative harms of one drug versus another,” he said. “Not that long ago, they were told that marijuana would make them psychotic, and now it’s legal. Why should they believe us now when we tell them how deadly drugs are becoming?”

Then came the pandemic, leaving students from grade school to grad school isolated, bored, and seeking anything to get through the long days of quarantine; many turned to the web to purchase what appeared to be restricted brand-named opioids, like Percocet but contained deadly levels of fentanyl. Friedman points out that the look-alike illicit synthetics, like fentanyl, that replaced prescription opioids are killing young people so quickly, that many never even formed an addiction. His research shows that between 2010 and 2020, adolescent drug use remained stable, but between 2019 and 2020, deaths by overdose increased by 94 percent and from 2020 to 2021 by another 20 percent.   

“These dealers are essentially handing a loaded gun to unsuspecting victims and they don’t care,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. He intends to prosecute these dealers for murder. 

Those most vulnerable are the ages 14 to 34 and they’re not only privileged college kids, according to the DEA. Many are white men residing in areas where a smaller portion of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree. 

“Everyone is stressed. It’s a tough time on all economic levels,” the DEA’s Bodner says.

“These dealers are essentially handing a loaded gun to unsuspecting victims…”

At 15, Lincoln Lively was a talented skateboarder who was out every night after school at a local park in Corona, near where he lived with his father, Brad, and the Marina where his mother had an apartment with her fiancé. The 16-year-old, whose family is nicknamed Linc, is the second of five siblings all named after U.S. presidents: Madison, 20, Hays, 14, Monroe, 12, and Nixon, nine. His mother said that Linc was the child most affected by the divorce.

“I felt him pulling away,” Micah Lively, who works as a real-estate executive, told LAMag. “I was worried, but I figured it was normal for a teen to want to be with friends more than parents.” 

It was Madison who entered Linc’s bedroom on October 4, attempting to wake him for school for a second time, and found him covered in vomit. He was asking to be hugged, but flinched when his sister tried to touch him; soon he began crying and yelling. He wasn’t making any sense, so she called her father and later sent a video to her mother, who forwarded it to a nurse friend.” Get him to a hospital,” she replied.

When he arrived at about 9:30 a.m. the ER staff was baffled by Lincoln’s symptoms: excruciating leg pain, internal organs shutting down, and the teen was still completely incoherent. When a doctor asked if he’d taken anything, the family said that they didn’t know. Test results had not arrived yet when Madison got a text at noon from their neighbor and Linc’s best friend, Kamila Javranovic: “Is Linc okay?” She told Madison that he hadn’t been responding to her texts; as soon as she learned Linc had been hospitalized, she knew he’d overdosed; Linc confided in Kamila about his drug use exclusively, she said, and he’d told her on Sunday that he was going to take pills on Monday night. Percocet, she recalled him saying.    

“We made a pact that he would always let me know when he was going to get high,” she told LAMag. 

No one who was close to the family but Kamila knew that had been taking fake Percocet for months, allegedly buying from a neighbor, slicing a pill in half then crushing and snorting it. He’d never taken a full dose, but he was upping the frequency, says Kamila, having gone from one pill per week to three or more a week.  

An ER doctor soon administered Narcan, the powerful opioid antidote, but the facility wasn’t equipped to deal with the major problem of Lincoln’s internal organs shutting down. He was dying. They transferred the teenager by helicopter to Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, where a team of physicians was waiting to put him on dialysis. This is when it was discovered that the fentanyl had caused compartment syndrome—extreme swelling and pain in the muscles. The thick fascia surrounding his muscle had to be cut to release swelling, otherwise, the muscle and tissue could have died. After several surgeries, Lincoln was discharged and is now moved in with his mother and her fiancé, Heather Taylor. The two women nursed him for months until he’d recovered enough to get around with a cane and back to his home-schooling. 

Lincoln declined to be interviewed but did say that he thinks his story should be told. Kamila and Linc sometimes talk about that day but inevitably, one or both of them ends up in tears. The high school junior is credited with saving her friend’s life but says that she feels guilty anyway. “I could have said something earlier and maybe stopped this whole thing,” she explains, as she starts to tear up. Ultimately, inadequately educating students about the dangers of these drugs is what’s to blame, she adds, echoing the sentiment of USC’s Dr. Doctor.

“I had one 45-minute class in seventh grade on sex and drugs and nothing since,” she says, indignantly. “Kids don’t know what they’re taking and now people are dying. They have to get information into schools. He had no idea about fentanyl or how it can instantly kill you. We had to explain to him what happened.” 

Kamila said she believes that social media companies must be more vigilant about the fentanyl epidemic and online drug sales, which have been spreading on social platforms right under their noses: “Snapchat used to be bad, but they got smarter and stopped a lot of it,” she says, “I hear it’s gone over to Instagram. It’s everywhere online.”  

Family and friends of people who died after being poisoned by pills containing fentanyl carry signs as they protest near the Snap, Inc. headquarters.

Snapchat is often mentioned as a hotbed for illicit drug sales since user-to-user messages on the platform are ephemeral. Although at this point, every social media platform has at some point been a space for online drug dealing. It in the aftermath of Charlie Ternan’s death in 2020 that his parents approached Snapchat directly. Surprisingly, they were able to get through to company leadership. 

“They helped us see these tragedies from a human perspective,” says Jennifer Stout, Snap Inc.’s vice president of global policy. A team from Snap has now spoken to police, policymakers, and researchers as well as students, teachers, and families across the nation on the matter. Snap says it has strengthened a detection tool that was already in place and claims that 88 percent of the drug activity on the site has been uncovered. According to Snap, in the first half of 2021, they removed 338,083 pieces of content for violations, including illegal drugs, and removed 150,334 unique accounts in the U.S.

Two years after their son’s death, Mary and Ed Ternan remain in the Pasadena home where they raised him with his older sister and brother. His photos still line the shelves, but for them, the home will never be the same—he doesn’t come charging through the door anymore followed by his friends, who nicknamed Charlie “Big Head” and referred to Mary as “Mama T.” 

Some families deal with addiction over months or years, sucked into the vortex of relapse, recovery, despair, and hope, learning how to cope as the cycle repeats. But for both the Ternans and the Livelys, an unanticipated overdose was caused by a drug about which they’d known little. This is one of the reasons why the family chose to found a non-profit they’ve called “Song For Charlie”: its mission is to inform the public, especially young people, about the deadly nature of fentanyl. Recent data, videos, resources, and charts to illustrate the situation’s urgency fill the organization’s website.

“This is a problem I can work on. I can’t do anything about stopping the sellers or the buyers but I can get the word out about this new drug epidemic,” Ed Ternan says. “If we can help one person, one family, one kid, then Charlie won’t have died in vain.”

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