All over America, families are being broken by fentanyl.
Fifty times more powerful than heroin, this deadly drug is more addictive than anything that’s come before. It’s been in circulation in America for a decade, fuelling an unprecedented addiction crisis.
A ruthless criminal network stretching back to Mexico, China and beyond, is pushing it into schools, clubs and onto the streets to hook people. In the US, more than 70,000 people a year are being killed by this synthetic opioid.
Now, in a terrifying twist, fentanyl is killing school children who are buying pills laced with the drug on social media, and overdosing in their classrooms and in their beds.
We travelled to the city of Kyle in Texas to hear the stories of families whose lives have been ripped apart. Gathered under a tree in a local park, they stood – united by grief – clutching photos of their loved ones. Some had sought painkillers. Others were desperate to sleep. Some were just teenagers experimenting. None wanted to die.
‘This is a war’
Jim Fraser: “We lost our daughter, Maile, on 17 February. She took something at home during the night, I guess, before she went to bed. We found her the next morning. She was 19 years old.
“We don’t know exactly what she took. But we know it was laced with fentanyl.
“She suffered from anxiety and depression, and was on a couple of medications for that. I guess she just wanted something stronger or different.
“This is a war. People from another country are attacking and killing our children. It’s got to stop.”
Veneeta Fraser: “Maile was a beautiful child. A bright light to everybody she came in contact with.
“She wasn’t addicted to anything. She couldn’t sleep and needed help – it speaks to the mental health crisis in this country.
“You don’t believe it could happen to you. And here we are. It truly could happen to anybody.”
‘It started with marijuana’
Brandi Hickman: “Kids are supposed to learn from their mistakes, not die from them.
“Fentanyl doesn’t discriminate whether you’re rich or poor, black or white. It has no boundaries.
“My son, Andron, didn’t want to feel different. So he chose to self-medicate. It started with marijuana, the gateway drug – now fentanyl is being laced in marijuana as well.
“My message is live your life. You don’t want to be represented on the t-shirt that I have to wear of my son. You don’t want your parents to have to experience what we’re going through.”
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‘He thought it was a xanax’
Stefanie Turner: “The first time Tucker was offered a pill was at a New Year’s Eve party when he was 18 years old. He came home and told us about this pill that he was offered, he thought it was a xanax. We talked to him about not taking prescription medication.
“Little did I know that fentanyl was in the pill and how quickly that can create an addiction. Over the course of nine months, Tucker struggled. When he felt stressed, he would turn to a pill as his way of coping.
“Over the course of nine months, he went to two treatment centres.
“After four months of sobriety and what appeared to be living his best life, in September 2021 he chose to purchase another pill on social media.
“Tucker was found 10 hours later.”
‘Don’t think it can’t be your kid’
Janet Zarate: “Ryan Matthew Garcia Jr. Our “King Ryan”. He will be forever 17.
“He was an outgoing, smart, beautiful, happy, funny boy. He loved his job. He loved school and played football. He was a great athlete.
“Unfortunately, on 11 February, 2022, he took what he thought was a percocet [an opioid pain relief]. It was laced with fentanyl and it forever changed our lives.”
Ray Brown: “Don’t get it twisted and think it can’t be your kid.
“He was normal, happy. He wasn’t depressed. He wasn’t a drug addict. He was just a kid being a kid. And unfortunately he died as a kid being a kid.”
These families, spearheaded by Stefanie who founded the charity Texas United Against Fentanyl shortly after Tucker’s death, all desperately want to raise awareness of the dangers.
Their message was echoed by the Texas school teachers and police officers we met who are working tirelessly to combat this epidemic.
The teachers, some of whom keep the reversal treatment narcan on hand in case a student overdoses at school, are calling for more treatment for mental health in children, a need even more urgent after the isolation many young people faced over the COVID pandemic.
The police leading the drug busts want more resources and better border control. They need help to break the criminal chain that is supplying the drugs.
They all agree that action is needed now more than ever.
“Tucker was a deep thinker,” says Stefanie. “People often say, ‘Well, if he was so smart, why would he choose to use that drug?’ But it’s the drug. It’s so addictive and powerful – it steals lives. That’s what it did to our son.”