‘One pill can kill:’ DEA, Snapchat, parents confront deadly fentanyl

 Fancy an Oxycontin pill to take the edge off? A little cocaine to celebrate?

For even the youngest kids, finding recreational drugs has been as easy as a quick search of online platforms like Snapchat, where dealers have brazenly showcased their wares. But the drugs that were delivered, sometimes right to a young teen’s front door, were not the real thing. They actually contained fentanyl, a cheap synthetic opioid some 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Alexander Neville, 14, pictured during a trip to Palomar Mountain in 2019, died after ingesting fentanyl in June. (Photo courtesy of the Neville family)

It took just one pill to kill Alexander Neville, 14, a smart, curious kid prone to a philosophical and distinctively teenage anxiety. And Jessica Shely Filson, 29, eager to celebrate a milestone. And Daniel Puerta, 16, and Alexandra Capelouto, 20, and thousands of others who weren’t addicts struggling with long-term addiction, but young people doing what their parents might have done 25 or 30 years ago, before deadly fentanyl infected just about every street drug.

An increasingly alarming body count has prompted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to launch its first public safety alert in six years, warning of a sharp increase in fake prescription pills containing not only fentanyl, but methamphetamine as well.

Parents of the dead have produced “Dead on Arrival,” a gut-wrenching, 20-minute documentary/public safety announcement that they hope every parent will watch — with their children.

And Snap Inc. has hardened its push to remove illegal drug sales from its platform, “investing in proactive detection and collaboration with law enforcement to hold drug dealers accountable for the harm they are causing our community.”

The tidal wave they’re trying to stem is enormous.

‘One pill can kill’

In Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, according to the DEA, there were 2,234 drug-caused deaths in 2019, and 3,702 in 2020, a 59% increase. There were 755 deaths involving fentanyl in 2019, and 1,887 in 2020. That’s a 150% increase.

Data lags, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 4,825 Californians lost their lives to fentanyl in the year ending in February 2021, compared to 2,051 who died in the year ending in February 2020. That’s a 135% increase.

“DEA’s Public Safety Alert, the first in six years, seeks to raise public awareness of a significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills that are mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate,” the DEA said in its announcement of the “One Pill Can Kill” campaign.

Jessica Filson and her daughter. Courtesy Filson family.

“These counterfeit pills have been seized by DEA in every U.S. state in unprecedented quantities. More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year, which is more than the last two years combined.”

It’s not just more pills, which look strikingly like the real thing. It’s more fentanyl in each pill as well.

Lab testing has revealed a dramatic rise in the number of pills containing a lethal dose, the DEA said. It only takes 2 milligrams — enough to fit on the tip of a pencil — to kill a person.

“With the social media platforms, it makes it so easy for young people to get their hands on it,” said Sarah Steffick, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Orange County office. “They think they’re getting a real prescription drug and they’re not — they’re getting fentanyl or methamphetamine. The criminals are at work preying on our children, adults, American citizens.”

Gone in a Snap

Snap has been an especially popular platform because chats soon disappear.

Alex Neville bought the pill that killed him on Snapchat. So did Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson, Alexandra Capelouto, Adrian De Jesus, Devin Joseph Norring, Zachariah Plunk, Dylan Kai Sarantos, and so many others.

Courtesy Snap

The company has launched several initiatives to combat bad behavior. Searches for drug-related keywords will display a new, in-app education portal called Heads Up. Heads Up includes information from Song for Charlie, Shatterproof and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and will soon add content from the CDC.

“We believe it is our responsibility to keep our community safe on Snapchat and we have made significant operational improvements over the past year to eradicate drug sales from our platform and we are continually working to improve,” Snap said in announcing the changes.

Snap’s most important investments over the past year have been in growing its team supporting “valid” law enforcement requests about drug dealing to more quickly respond.

“While we still have work to do, across all types of law enforcement requests we receive, our response times have improved 85% year over year, and in the case of emergency disclosure requests, our 24/7 team usually responds within 30 minutes,” the company said.

Snap said it also has “significantly improved” detection capabilities to remove drug dealers from the platform, with enforcement rates increasing by 112% over the first half of 2021, and “proactive detection” up by 260%.

“Nearly two-thirds of drug-related content is detected proactively by our artificial intelligence systems, with the balance reported by our community and enforced by our team,” the company said. “We’ve also worked to improve our in-app reporting tools to make it easier and faster for our community to report drug-related content.”

There’s also a video advertising campaign, in partnership with Song for Charlie, that has been viewed more than 260 million times, and the company is rolling out a national campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills.

Alexandra Capelouto (Courtesy Capelouto family)

Snap also commissioned research from Morning Consult in an effort to understand how young people perceive prescription drugs and fentanyl. It found that teenagers are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety, and are experimenting with the use of prescription drugs as a coping strategy, and aren’t aware of the dangers posed by counterfeit pills.

“Our work here is never done, but we want to communicate updates as we make progress so that our community can monitor our progress and hold us accountable,” the company said. “We will continue to work to strike the right balance between safety and privacy on our platform so that we can empower our community to express themselves without fear of harm.”

Not enough

While parents welcome Snapchat’s efforts, they say they are ultimately not enough.

“Our families have suffered a great deal of pain as a result of drug dealers on Snapchat, and our children have died,” they said in a letter to the company last month. “Snapchat’s verbal commitments, genuine good will, and public service messaging efforts are welcome, but the potential for more harm screams for transparency and oversight.”

They asked Snap to respond more quickly to law enforcement — “the investigations into our own children’s deaths have encountered resistance to law enforcement requests for information” — as well as to be more proactive in stopping drug trafficking, screening business profiles and agreeing to an external transparency committee to evaluate Snapchat’s efforts.

In a response reviewed by the Southern California News Group, the company said that it valued the parents’ recommendations and advocacy. So far this year, Snap is on pace to receive 500% more law enforcement investigation requests than it received just three years ago, the letter said.

That did not make Amy Neville feel much better.

“An increase of 500% in law enforcement requests is heartbreaking and I hope that you … recognize that. Snap is a business that is indirectly involved with a lot of real crime with fatal consequences,” Neville responded.

Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson (Courtesy Puerta family)

‘Dead on Arrival’

The one thing everyone agrees on: Young people need to understand that no street drug should be considered safe.

“Dead on Arrival” is a visceral scream meant to deliver that warning.

The short film features gut-wrenching interviews with surviving parents who started V.O.I.D. — Victims of Illicit Drugs. They tell about the people their children were, what their last conversations were like, how they found their children unresponsive, or dead, on their floors or beds.

The kids weren’t hardcore drug addicts. They had just started experimenting, or were just recreational users.

Fentanyl didn’t care.

“My only child,” weeps an agonized Jaime Puerta, who lost son Daniel, in the film. “I couldn’t protect him. I couldn’t save his life.”

Armed with this information, these parents fervently hope, they might be able to save your child’s life.

Powered by Blogger.