Families who have lost kids to fentanyl share mixed feelings about today’s test strips

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The first-ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day in the U.S. is coming up on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 — thanks to a coalition of nonprofit groups, major corporations, government agencies and schools, including Google, Snap, Shatterproof, the Ad Council and more, according to a recent media release about the issue.

The goal? To raise awareness among all Americans about the illicit fentanyl that is present in fake pills and street drugs.

Just one pill — one single pill — can lead to death.

The urgency? Illegally made fentanyl is the key driver of the recent increase in overdose deaths — and deaths involving fentanyl are growing the fastest, among America’s young people ages 14 to 23. 

The issue in a nutshell? Just one pill — a single pill — can kill a person, changing that person’s family forever.

The Ternan family of California know all about this. They’re still mourning the loss of their son as a result. 

Charlie Ternan, who lost his life to a single fake fentanyl pill in 2020. His parents started Song for Charlie to raise awareness about the dangers of "fentapills."

Charlie Ternan, who lost his life to a single fake fentanyl pill in 2020. His parents started Song for Charlie to raise awareness about the dangers of “fentapills.”
(Ternan Family/Song for Charlie)

He was 22 years old — and mere weeks away from his college graduation when he tragically died.

Ed and Mary Ternan lost their son, Charlie, to a counterfeit pill in 2020. It’s why they founded Song for Charlie (songforcharlie.org). It’s a family-run nonprofit that is bringing greater awareness to the issue. It’s based in Pasadena, Calif.

As they write on their website, it only takes one pill to kill if that single fake pill is a “fentapill.”

“We learned that Charlie had purchased a Percocet online because his back was hurting,” they say on their website. 

“But it wasn’t real. It was a ‘fentapill.’ We think Charlie took the pill around 3 p.m. and died within 30 minutes.” They add, “He never had a chance.”

Trauma, grief — and action to prevent further loss

Fentanyl overdoses are today the leading cause of death among U.S. adults ranging in age from 18 to 45 — surpassing suicide, car accidents and even COVID-19. 

Officials are increasingly concerned that middle school, high school and college-aged kids are being targeted, as criminals make fentanyl pills disguised as Oxycodone, Adderall and Xanax. 

Officials are increasingly concerned that middle school, high school and college-aged kids are being targeted, as criminals make fentanyl pills disguised as Oxycodone, Adderall and Xanax. 
(Cary Quashen)

That’s according to Families Against Fentanyl (FAF), another nonprofit founded to bring greater awareness to the fentanyl epidemic. 

Illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF), distributed through illegal drug markets, killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2021 alone. In liquid form, IMF can be found in eyedrops and nasal sprays. 

In powdered form, IMF is mixed with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and pressed into pills — and made to resemble prescription opioids. 

Song for Charlie works to raise awareness about “fentapills.” 

Scores of families have experienced the trauma and grief of losing loved ones to this illegal drug — and many have turned their emotion into action and awareness activities, to help prevent the loss and sadness for others that they themselves have experienced. 

It’s why Song for Charlie works to raise awareness about “fentapills.” 

“Charlie was found by his friends, unresponsive in his room, around 8:45 p.m. on a Thursday,” his parents note on their website. “[His friends] tried their best to revive him, but it was too late.” 

It is likely Charlie Ternan died in the afternoon, some 30 minutes after taking the “fentapill.” He “was a regular guy, just like a lot of the guys you know,” his family says on their website. 

“He was a good friend, and he had a bunch of them. He was in love. He liked to party with his fraternity brothers. He was a movie buff and had great taste in music. He was smart and a really good student (mostly, when he applied himself). He brought people together.”

Ed Ternan told Fox News Digital in a phone interview last week, “Self-medication is more dangerous than ever in the era of fake pills and fentanyl.” 

“We need to encourage young people to develop healthy, natural and sustainable strategies for coping with their very real stress and anxiety,” he added. 

“You can’t solve real problems with fake pills.” 

Two types — both are synthetic opioids

The two types of fentanyl are pharmaceutical fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, according to the CDC. Both are considered synthetic opioids. 

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain, especially after surgery and for advanced-stage cancer.

Yet “because of its powerful opioid properties, fentanyl is also diverted for abuse,” the website for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes. 

An array of fentanyl pills are shown here. Clandestinely produced fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico.

An array of fentanyl pills are shown here. Clandestinely produced fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico.
(U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

This means, in essence, that if prescription pills such as Xanax, Percocet and Oxycodone are bought from somewhere other than a pharmacy — the assumption must be that they are fake and potentially deadly. Clandestinely produced fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico.

FENTANYL TEST STRIPS CAN DETECT HIDDEN OPIOIDS

Fentanyl is also added to heroin to increase its potency, according to the DEA. Though many users believe they are purchasing heroin, they don’t realize they are actually buying fentanyl, which often results in overdose deaths. With illicitly manufactured fentanyl, even two milligrams — the equivalent of two grains of sand — can lead to deadly poisoning. 

This is why, in an effort to prevent further tragedy, some are pushing the use of fentanyl test strips.

Fentanyl test strips — and why there’s disagreement

There are disagreements over this detection potential.  

“There is no such thing as a pill that has been tested. If it is presented in pill form, [then that pill] has not been tested for fentanyl.”

Ed Ternan of Pasadena, who lost his son to a single pill laced with fentanyl, said fentanyl test strips might be appropriate in some scenarios — yet he believes there are serious limitations.  

“All responsible harm reduction advocates stress that test strips cannot be used to test a part of a pill, or one pill from a batch,” he told Fox News Digital. 

“Since fentanyl is unevenly distributed, even within single tablets, each pill must be crushed and dissolved prior to testing. If the user decides to consume the dose, [he or she] must then drink the solution,” warned Ternan. 

“This also means that there is no such thing as a pill that has been tested. If it is presented in pill form, [then that pill] has not been tested for fentanyl.”

Given the grim reality of lost lives and ravaged families from fentanyl — and given that it’s contributed to nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades — there has been a rise in such harm reduction efforts as fentanyl test strips.

A patron is seen walking near a table that contains free fentanyl test strips and Narcan, at Low Bar in Oakland, California, on March 3, 2022. 

A patron is seen walking near a table that contains free fentanyl test strips and Narcan, at Low Bar in Oakland, California, on March 3, 2022. 
(REUTERS/Nathan Frandino)

Developed by BTNX, a biotechnology company based in Ontario, Canada, fentanyls test strips (FTS) can be purchased from online retailers, including Amazon. Or they can be procured from local needle exchange programs. Some bars and other venues are now making them available free for patrons. 

A growing number of states have been decriminalizing fentanyl test strips — which have been historically barred under drug paraphernalia laws. 

“We’re done with dead kids. We’re done with accidental overdoses.” 

Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts (a pilot program), Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin have all passed laws in the past year that exclude fentanyl test strips from the definition of drug paraphernalia, according to MedPage Today, which reports on clinical news and medical topics. 

Parents such as Arizona State Sen. Christine Marsh, a Democrat, are advocating for harm reduction measures amid the fentanyl crisis. Marsh, a former high school English teacher, lost her 25-year-old son, Landon, nearly two years ago after he bought a Percocet laced with fentanyl during a night out with friends.

Fentanyl test strips are seen in a container at The Legionnaire bar in Oakland, California, on March 3, 2022. 

Fentanyl test strips are seen in a container at The Legionnaire bar in Oakland, California, on March 3, 2022. 
(REUTERS/Nathan Frandino)

After his passing, Marsh introduced SB1486, a measure to legalize test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl. Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey signed it into law last May. 

“It’s a teeny strip, and a person can mix water, a tiny bit of drug residue — and the strip will tell you once you switch the strip around in the substance,” Marsh told Phoenix-based Fox10 at the time. 

“The strip will say whether there’s fentanyl [present] or not.” She added, “I contend that a night of stupidity should not result in death.” Fox News Digital reached out to her office for comment. 

“This is an emergency. For everyone,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., in a series of tweets recently. “We must act. Legalize test strips. Stop China from sending chemicals to Mexico. Stop the drug cartels from shipping fentanyl to America. And make social media companies stop allowing drug deals to happen on your phone.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good policy to make it easier for people addicted to drugs to use drugs.”

A parent of three grown children, Deutch added, in part, “Across America, young people are dying from ACCIDENTAL fentanyl ingestion: in legal supplements, in counterfeit pills they think are Xanax or Adderall, and yes, also in illegal drugs.” Deutch lost a young nephew, Eli, last year after he reportedly used a legal herbal supplement with fentanyl in it.

Packets of fentanyl mostly in powder form and methamphetamine, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they seized from a truck crossing into Arizona from Mexico, are on display during a news conference at the Port of Nogales, Arizona, on Jan. 31, 2019. 

Packets of fentanyl mostly in powder form and methamphetamine, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they seized from a truck crossing into Arizona from Mexico, are on display during a news conference at the Port of Nogales, Arizona, on Jan. 31, 2019. 
(Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Handout via REUTERS )

Meanwhile, FentCheck, a harm-reduction nonprofit, is offering fentanyl test strips to drug users in the San Francisco Bay Area who are “at risk from an increased prevalence of street drugs being tainted (cut, laced) with opioid — often with fentanyl,” the group’s website notes.

“We speak with a sincere and non-judgmental voice. We help people who use drugs feel more savvy about drug safety and we equip them to educate their peers about fentanyl testing.”

FentCheck enlists volunteers to distribute fentanyl test strips to bars, restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, vintage clothing stores and tattoo parlors. 

FATHER WHO LOST DAUGHTER TO FENTANYL DEMANDS ACTION ON THE BORDER

“We’re done with dead kids. We’re done with accidental overdoses,” FentCheck co-founder Alison Heller told Reuters recently. 

U.S. Border Patrol agents working the Interstate 19 Immigration Checkpoint near Amado, Arizona, seized over 50 pounds of suspected fentanyl and arrested the driver of the vehicle on Oct. 13, 2021. 

U.S. Border Patrol agents working the Interstate 19 Immigration Checkpoint near Amado, Arizona, seized over 50 pounds of suspected fentanyl and arrested the driver of the vehicle on Oct. 13, 2021. 
(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

But critics of the cheap test strips say these strips enable drug users. Dr. Joey Hensley, a state senator and physician who runs a private practice in Tennessee, voted against the bill there.

“I just don’t think it’s a good policy to make it easier for people addicted to drugs to use drugs,” he told Reuters recently. 

The Florida House blocked the decriminalization of fentanyl test strips recently.

The CDC maintains the test strips are inexpensive and results are given typically within five minutes, “which can be the difference between life and death.” 

Yet the CDC also issued warnings. 

It said that even if the test is negative, the user should take caution — as the test strips may not detect other more potent drugs that are similar to fentanyl, such as carfentanil. 

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The health agency also discussed the importance of having the drug Narcan readily available, in the event of an overdose or fatal reaction to the drug.

Reuters, as well as Amy McGorry of Fox News Digital, contributed reporting to this article. 

Mojtaba Sadira

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