Song for Charlie co-founders Ed and Mary Ternan on the dramatic rise of counterfeit prescription pills

    After a counterfeit tablet purchased on social media took their son Charlie’s life, Ed and Mary Ternan were determined to take action. Rather than blame social media companies for sales of dangerous substances, Ed and Mary saw an opportunity to make a change. They created the nonprofit Song for Charlie to raise awareness about fentanyl and fentanyl-laced substances being sold to young people on social media. Many counterfeit pills are made to look like prescription opioids and are more lethal than ever before.

    Join Heart of the Matter host Elizabeth Vargas as she sits down with Ed and Mary to discuss how substances are marketed and sold to adolescents and young adults on social media, the alarming increase in the availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and the launch of National Fentanyl Awareness Day on May 10.

    Content warning: This episode contains mentions of death, as well as in-depth discussions of substance use. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder, please contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at (800) 662-4357. These programs provide free, confidential support 24/7. You are not alone.

    Listen now

    Substances Laced with Fentanyl: How to Protect Loved Ones

    Many substances are laced with other substances, like fentanyl. Learn tips for how you can help protect your child from accidental overdose.

    Learn more
    Fentanyl

    Fentanyl and similar compounds like carfentanil are powerful synthetic opioids 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine

    Learn more
    How Can I Protect My Child from Fentanyl? 5 Things Parents Need to Know

    Deaths from overdoses reached a staggering 100,300 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021. This represents nearly a 30% increase compared to the previous time period; largely driven by fentanyl. If your son or daughter has an opioid addiction, here are five things to know to keep your child safe.

    Learn more

    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Ed and Mary Ternan, thank you so much for being guests on Heart of the Matter. And for talking about what I think is every parent’s nightmare, and raising an awareness and an alert that needs to be raised in this country around fentanyl showing up in prescription pills, fake prescription pills. You lost your son, Charlie. He was 22 years old about to graduate with an economics degree from college. Tell me what happened and how you think he got this pill that was pure fentanyl, and he had no idea.

    Mary Ternan:

    Charlie was with us for a couple months because of COVID. And he was so eager to get back up to school and be with his classmates and friends. And since, yeah, they only had three weeks left until they were going to graduate. And he had had back surgery a year prior and he was complaining to us that his back was hurting. And so he was up there six days and asked a friend, had a job interview that Thursday, the 14th of May, and he just wanted to chill out and play video games, and asked a friend who knew somebody on Snapchat. And he got a Percocet that was not a Percocet. It was a poisonous counterfeit pill, a fentanyl.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    A fentanyl, pure fentanyl.

    Mary Ternan:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    So he took the Percocet. He was having back pain. And had he been using Percocet before? Do you know? Was he given Percocet after the surgery?

    Mary Ternan:

    Yes. He knew what Percocet does. And he knew how it was going to make him feel. And yeah, he never obviously made the job interview and he was so excited about that, because he was probably going to get the job. And-.

    Ed Ternan:

    We actually think Charlie was in a weird way being somewhat responsible because he was up there during the spring quarter of his senior year, and his fraternity brothers said, let’s all go out and hit some golf balls and do some day drinking and forget about virtual classes for a day, come on, we’re almost done. And he said, I got this phone call at five o’clock. I can’t go, I got to stay here. And at some point during the day, as Mary said, he went to a friend who found some guy on, the two of them found some dealer on Snapchat and ordered a Percocet to, we think take the edge off and relax a little bit before this final interview, but also because of his back pain.

    And what we’ve been piece together is that he was in his fraternity house and his friends, the last time anybody spoke to him was about 2:30, 3:00 that afternoon. And he was, like he said he was going to do, he was in his room playing video games, killing time until that five o’clock phone call that he had to make. And so somewhere between three o’clock and five o’clock, he took that pill, because what we know is he never made the five o’clock phone call and his friends found him unresponsive in his room about eight o’clock that night. And by that time he had been gone for several hours.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And you got that knock on the door and a simultaneous phone call that every parent dreads, they were friends of the family?

    Mary Ternan:

    Yeah. Yeah. They had called me on my cell and it was our pastor and our good friends. And I didn’t pick up, it was 10:00 and I just thought I’ll call him back tomorrow morning. And then he called Ed’s cell and said, “I’m at your front door, please answer the door.”

    Ed Ternan:

    And that was tough. That’s what no parent ever wants to do is have somebody knock on your door and say, sit down, we have bad news. And so that was the first day of the rest of our life, I guess. I remember saying to them that everything starts from right now. Our old life is gone. And from here on forward, we’re on a different path. And this is an experience sadly that’s shared by a lot of parents around the country, from this seemingly completely random, unexpected cause of death among, just your regular run-of-the-mill kids who are being deceived by these counterfeit pills. We were actually lucky, Elizabeth, in that we found out fairly quickly that fentanyl was the suspected culprit. A lot of families because of the way these toxicology reports happen and the way the investigations flow, they’ll go 30 or 60 days wondering why did I go in my son’s bedroom at 8:00 in the morning and find him dead in his bed? What happened? And they don’t know until the toxicology report comes back.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How did you know right away that it was fentanyl?

    Ed Ternan:

    We were not at the death scene luckily, Charlie was in Northern California, we were here. We didn’t have to go through that gut-wrenching experience, but his friends did. So when we had our friends here at the house with us, we made a phone call to some of his friends. They were hysterical. And one of the officers got on the phone and you can imagine this little bit of dark comedy here, but they come to the scene and they ask the fraternity brothers when they see a deceased person in the house, could it be drugs? And, of course, the fraternity boys go, well, of course, it’s a fraternity, it could be drugs. So the cop at that time says what we’re hearing is its pills. And that night we were like, well, that doesn’t make any sense, because Charlie doesn’t have a pill problem as far as we know. He just lived with us for 60 days during the very first part of the lockdown. One of those things where the kids all went home for spring break, if you remember, and then the university-.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. And nobody went back.

    Ed Ternan:

    … said don’t come back. Right?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. This was in May of 2020.

    Ed Ternan:

    Right. Very early COVID.

    Mary Ternan:

    And being mama bear I’d check everything. So, I went through everything just like us moms do, just to make sure.

    Ed Ternan:

    He was acting just perfectly normal, no indication of any signs of trouble, or substance use, or anything like that. Now things were weird because of COVID. So, nobody was completely normal during that time, but we really scratched our heads with that, well, we think it’s pills. And we had a vague notion that pills were on the menu for kids this age recreationally, we heard about chilling out with a Xanax or something, but we thought to ourselves, how many Xanax does a 6’2″, 235 pound guy have to take to die? It just didn’t make any sense. Well, we got a call the next morning from an investigator detective. And he was the one who said, “Listen, we’ll wait for the tox screen, but I’m telling you right now, this is fentanyl. Charlie is the seventh death in this county in the last 10 days. So we’re pretty sure that-.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What?

    Ed Ternan:

    … yeah. “We’re pretty sure this is fentanyl.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Wait. Seven deaths in 10 days?

    Ed Ternan:

    In May of 2020, we were told he was the seventh death in a 10-day period in Santa Clara County, California in mid May. And that’s when we got online and started searching. We googled fentanyl Santa Clara County. And we discovered that it had happened before. There had been a young man at Stanford who died six months prior, there was a high school girl who died in San Jose, her boyfriend was revived. It was on the news, local San Francisco area news, Silicon Valley newspapers. There were bulletins on the DEA website locally, the medical examiner website and the sheriff department website. And that’s when the ideas started crystallizing in our head. We were struck by the fact that other people know about this problem, but the kids don’t know. Charlie certainly didn’t know. And kids don’t get their news from page six of the morning paper. So if we’re going to warn kids, which we really think we need to do, we need to go where the kids are. We got to figure out how to get to them directly. And that sent us off on our mission.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Before we get into that mission, backing up your contention as his parents, that Charlie didn’t have a substance use disorder, you had never seen him abusing drugs or alcohol. You saw no evidence that he was under the influence. And he only bought one that day. He bought a single pill of what he thought was Percocet. It looked exactly like a Percocet, complete with a stamp. And it was nothing but pure fentanyl, which is, as we know, 50 times stronger than heroin, a hundred times stronger than morphine. This is deadly stuff. How did he get that pill?

    Ed Ternan:

    Well, he got it from a dealer that he connected with on Snapchat.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Snapchat.

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah. And that’s a major part of the problem here – is that the accessibility of these pills, these counterfeit pills, has just exploded, because every single kid has a cell phone and multiple social media accounts. And also this generation of kids has become accustomed to prescription pills. This is the generation that we started medicating in grammar school in the early 2000s with Ritalin and Adderall for learning differences and Xanax for anxiety, and Percocet and Vicodin and Oxy for sports injuries and wisdom teeth. And so by the time a kid is in high school or college, 40% of their friends have a prescription pill bottle in their backpack. They’re just everywhere. Well, drug dealers know this, they know that kids have an appetite for pills and kids are on social media. So, that’s where they advertise their wears.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But Snapchat, I remember being really annoyed when my kids were on it for a time, because I couldn’t monitor anything. The messages in Snapchat disappear as soon as they’re read. How is it that drug dealers are on Snapchat? Can you walk me through how exactly drug dealers are using Snapchat of all places to pedal pills?

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah. And these drug dealers are savvy marketers. They know what they’re doing, and they know their target market. A lot of times they will advertise on Instagram where their posts are more permanent. And then when they find a customer, they will say, “Let’s hop over to Snapchat.” And what they call the last mile – the transaction is arranged there with Snapchat because of the fact that the snaps disappear. And so it’s a very, it’s a useful tool, and these drug dealers have just made themselves available, they put themselves out there for kids who are looking for these pills. And it’s very easy for kids to find them. We’ve talked to a bunch of people in the internet reform movement, internet safety world. We’re working actively with Snapchat, by the way. So we have some view from the inner workings of what’s going on there.

    There’s increasing activity on emerging platforms like Telegram and Discord. There’s a lot of transactions that happen on Facebook Messenger. So I know you’ve spoken to Sam Quinones. He mentioned in his book – one of the things that struck me was dealers will always use the latest technology to distribute their goods. And back in the day, in the early part of the opioid crisis, it was the pager that revolutionized the access of heroin when that demand came up. Right? So you didn’t have to go to a dark alley in an inner city to get heroin anymore. You beeped the guy and he brought it to your house. So Snapchat and social media is just the next at evolution of that. It’s the technology distribution platform of the day.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You have, I know there are other parents who blame Snapchat and have protested outside Snapchat’s headquarters, accusing it of not doing enough to crack down on these drug dealers. Tell me about your decision. You say that initially you too were furious and angry at Snapchat, but you have now decided to work with that social media platform to try and crack down on this. Why did you change? Why did you make that decision?

    Mary Ternan:

    Well, I think it was, we wanted to make them our allies, and because that’s where the kids are. And so when we told them the story of what happened to Charlie and all these other kids, they didn’t understand. They didn’t know how bad it was and how deceitful – these drug dealers are really just really deceiving them and saying that they’re going to get one thing and it’s not. It could kill them. So I think once we told them that story of the whole problem, they realized, “Wow, we didn’t even realize that was going on.” And they’ve helped us, gave us some ad credits.

    Ed Ternan:

    Ad credits. Yeah.

    Mary Ternan:

    And did research for us – market research. So we’ve really learned a lot in how we can get to the kids and really get the message out so that we can help save lives.

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah. And I think this is important, Elizabeth, all of us parents are grieving and we’ve had our legs just kicked out from under us by this shock of losing a child, and everyone who decides to stand up and get active and tell their story and try to address the problem chooses their own lane, and they play the hand that they’re dealt. We initially said, and I used to work in the internet business, and I’m a 60-year-old businessman, I got some gray in my hair. I knew that the liability shield that the social media platforms are protected by would prevent us from any kind of claim against them. We explored it with some of the top personal injury lawyers in Los Angeles and across the country.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You examined – can we sue Snapchat?

    Mary Ternan:

    Yeah.

    Ed Ternan:

    We looked at all our options.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And were you told that section 320 protected them and you had no chance?

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah. Essentially the law is not on your side. Now, if the law needs to change and the internet policies need to be reformed, okay, that’s fine, but we then, we’re practical people. We’re like, we want to solve the problem. And as Mary said, we thought to ourselves, “Well, what could we do if we got them to work with us?” So we are here in Southern California, Snap Inc. is headquartered in Southern California. A lot of people think it’s a Silicon Valley company, but it’s here. We know people who know people who work there. And we started to have a little reach out to see if we could have a dialogue. And when we finally broke through to them, after a couple of months of a little bit of back and forth, we were able to open their eyes a little bit.

    And this is something that some people don’t understand. When something bad like this happens, I think there’s an instinct to say, especially when it’s so shocking and nobody knew about fentanyl and fake pills until their child is taken from them. There’s this instinct to say, “Well, someone should have known about this before it happened to me. Why wasn’t this fixed already?” And what we’ve learned is that all of the social media platforms have policies that prevent drug dealing on their platforms. And they thought those were enough. But how do you catch it? One of the things we’ve learned, which is mind blowing to me is, around the world, five billion snaps are published every day. Every day, five billion bits of content go up and then come off that platform.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And disappear into the ether.

    Ed Ternan:

    That’s right. And that is an enormous content moderation challenge. But what we were able to tell them is that they needed to escalate this problem to more like child endangerment, or child sex trafficking. This is not kind of, look, we don’t allow drug dealing on our platform. Neither does Facebook or Instagram. They know it happens. They can’t catch all of it. They have their eyes open for it. But we said, “This is different because people are selling this highly potent opioid under the guise of these prescription pills the kids are familiar with and they assume are safe, and they’re dying like crazy. And your market,” we said to Snap, “your market is these young people.” And to their credit, they responded to us and said, you’re right. How can we help you? Let’s work together to do two things. We introduced them to a number of experts that we’d come across to really understand the issue and how these drug dealers are behaving in the fake pill world. And we work together to create content that kids find relatable to push it out on their platform.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Do you feel like they’re doing enough? This has become such a serious issue that the DEA this past September issued a very rare public safety alert on the sharp increase in fake prescription pills, containing fentanyl and meth. It’s the first such alert that the DEA has issued in six years. This is so bad in this country right now. And there are so many of these fentanyl-laced pills in this country that the DEA has issued an alert. There still sounds to me like there’s a disconnect between a rare DEA alert and the social media platform saying, we don’t allow drugs being sold on our platform while drugs are being sold by the millions of pills on their very platforms.

    Ed Ternan:

    Right. And I would say this: this is a new and different problem. Anyone, even in the drug legalization movement will tell you, giving someone a substance under false pretenses, putting a drug user in a situation of not knowing what they’re putting in their body is extremely risky, and it’s not tolerated anywhere. And the social media companies understand now that’s what’s going on and that’s different. And that they need to up their game and they are upping the game.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    All of them, or just Snapchat?

    Ed Ternan:

    Well, we are working actively with Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Wow.

    Ed Ternan:

    So we have established relationships. One relationship led to another, they’re all giving us ad credits, consulting with us behind the scenes on how to extend our reach on the awareness side primarily. But I will say this, this problem is unique. And I’ve identified – I have in my head – the three circle Venn diagram. And it’s supply reduction, which is basically law enforcement, DEA let’s say. Demand reduction, which is drug education. And harm reduction, which is the safe supply, legalized destigmatized movement. In the face of this brand new problem, this intersection of a highly potent synthetic that’s dirt cheap, and very powerful with the practice of counterfeiting pills, or sliding it into heroin without telling the user that it’s there.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Or cocaine.

    Ed Ternan:

    Or cocaine, is a new thing. And each of those groups, I think, are doubling down on their old ways of thinking and saying, because the problem’s got so much worse, we need to either lock them up faster, just say no louder, or legalize everything more. And none of those approaches are going to work. We really believe that all three of these groups need to come together and sit at a table and say, how do we figure out this new problem? So when you mentioned the DEA, I would like to see the DEA, instead of calling out social media, call up social media and say, come to headquarters, you have the technology. We know the drug dealers’ practices, let’s figure out how to get these guys off these platforms.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    We know from both the DEA and from the work of investigative journalists, like Sam Quinones, who was a guest on one of our previous episodes, that this has become a huge business with the drug cartels in Mexico. They are taking chemicals they’ve obtained from China. And in vast laboratories are able to manufacture fentanyl quickly and easily, and then press it into pills that look just like Valium or Xanax or Percocet, and then sell those pills. And I remember asking Sam Quinones, why would the drug dealers want to kill their own customers? That seems to be a really bad business model. Why would you put something that deadly out on the market? And, of course, it gives you a very huge high and it lasts a very short time, which will drive the customers out to buy more of whatever they got the first time and got that huge high from. The stories are everywhere about this fentanyl popping up in everything.

    We just saw a spring break episode in Florida with six West Point cadets overdosing after doing some cocaine on spring break vacation that was laced with fentanyl. There was terrible imagery of these huge – I think some of them were football players – being revived out on the front lawn of this house. It’s everywhere. We have your son’s story. We have the other stories just in the Bay Area near where your son was going to school. So it’s a huge, huge issue. And yet it feels like you’re trying to stop a tsunami. You know what I mean? There must be times when you feel like you’re the one man standing on the beach with the tsunami coming and going, where do I run and how do I stop this? It’s coming from all different directions. It’s disguised in ordinary pills that you can get with a prescription. It’s laced into illegal drugs that many, many people die and do recreationally. It seems to be everywhere.

    Ed Ternan:

    It really is. And it’s a big problem, and it’s got a lot of different tentacles to it. There’s the border issue. There’s international geopolitics with China, there’s the criminal justice issue. We make a distinction that our son was poisoned, he didn’t overdose. That’s an important distinction for the criminal justice system. And each of these parent groups that we know very well have all, a lot of them have picked these different lanes to focus on. And our tack has been, you’re exactly right, Elizabeth, this is a big problem. Society has not figured out its response to it yet. What we need to do is warn the kids in the meantime. So when I give presentations to young people, I always use the analogy of what we go through out here in the West, which are these fires, these bush fires in the fire season.

    When I say this is like the scenario where the fire chief calls the mayor of the town, and he says, the fire is between us and you. We cannot get there in time. We’re doing everything we can and we’ll get there eventually, but we’re not going to be there for a while. You have to save yourselves. And that’s my message to young people. And our message is an empowering one to young people. And we’ve gotten a lot of advice from people who know how to communicate with youth. They really are concerned about their peers. So we don’t say don’t do drugs, we say, protect your friends. Tell your friends. You don’t want this to happen to one of your friends. These pills are everywhere. And we think that because of the deception, that a lot of these deaths are with kids who did not go on the street or on social media asking for fentanyl.

    Ed Ternan:

    So we also say to some of these audiences, we’re not saying don’t do drugs. We’re saying don’t do these drugs, because they’re not what you’re looking for. When you go online to get a Xanax, that’s not Xanax.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. But it’s in everything, it’s in everything. It is sort of a, don’t do drugs. I’ve told my kids, it’s hard to have these conversations. You guys know, I know my kids are going to try alcohol, and I am in recovery from alcohol. So they have seen firsthand. Yeah, you too.

    Ed Ternan:

    Me too.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    They’ve seen firsthand what alcoholism looks like. And I’ve said, I know you’re going to try it. You need to be careful. But when it comes to drugs, I have taken the stance of no drug is safe, because you don’t know what’s in that drug. No longer can you think I’m just going to do this, and it’s going to be a little bit at a party, or I’m just going to do that to take the edge off. Unless you have that from a doctor and filled it at a pharmacy, you cannot take that pill. So it really has become, I don’t know, in my messaging to my own kids, don’t do any drugs, and certainly from just watching the news, it’s in every drug, potentially. No drug is risk free when it comes to fentanyl.

    Ed Ternan:

    Right. And what we’ve learned as we got thrust into this world involuntarily, is again, you’ve got the prevention camp and you’ve got the harm reduction camp. And the harm reduction camp will tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you tell kids don’t do drugs, they’re still going to do them. So let’s make it safer for them. And I get that to a degree, and Sam himself says that the cartels have ruined recreational drug use.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yes.

    Ed Ternan:

    And the problem is, on the prevention side, that for years we use some scare tactics like, well, if you smoke a joint, you’ll end up addicted to heroin. And the problem with that is then kids go to college and they smoke a joint and they go, well, that wasn’t so bad. And none of my friends are getting any worse. And so I was lied to. The problem now is the drug supply is so contaminated that it is as dangerous now, as it’s ever been, it’s worse than ever.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Sam Quinones has called it Russian roulette.

    Ed Ternan:

    Yes. It’s Russian roulette, and I call it chemical soup, because you’ve got all of these amateurs, for thousands of years, the substances we used to intoxicate ourselves were organic. They’re ultimately natural and plant-based. But beginning with meth and now with fentanyl, and there are others coming down the pipeline, the new business model and the new raw material are these synthetics. So you’ve got people, you’ve got a brew in the East of heroin, fentanyl and Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, because as you said, the fentanyl comes on so fast, but then wears off. The Xylazine, in street lingo, gives it legs. And people are suffering from these disgusting open skin sores that Xylazine causes because you’ve got these chemists trying to figure out chemical answers to meet market demand. Oh, you want a little more length to your high? Let’s throw a little this in there. Let’s throw a little that in there. So it is a mess. The drug supply has been polluted and people from all of these different groups, supply reduction, demand reduction, harm reduction, they all agree on that point. It has never been more dangerous than now to take drugs.

    Mary Ternan:

    Well. And as you always say, Ed too, what’s not going to go away is stress and the synthetic drugs. So, we have to really be careful and don’t do drugs. You need to go to a dispensary, you go to a dispensary, or you contact your doctor. That’s the only way that these kids are going to be able to deal with anything.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And as you just said, what’s not going to go away is stress. We know that, this pandemic has really, really created a mental health crisis in this country, when it comes to anxiety and depression. We know that the population most impacted has been adolescents and young adults. And many of them are turning to drugs, even if, and I’m not talking drugs in the sense of, I’m going to go shoot up, I’m talking about, I just need a Valium to take the edge off because I’m feeling anxious and panicky. And now that Valium, if you don’t get it from a doctor who might not be willing to prescribe it just for stress, if you go and get that Valium from someplace other than a doctor or a pharmacist, can be laced with something that can kill you. Do you think when two of you are out talking, especially to young audiences, that your message is getting through?

    Mary Ternan:

    Absolutely.

    Ed Ternan:

    We do.

    Mary Ternan:

    Absolutely.

    Ed Ternan:

    And again, we have taken the counsel of people who communicate with kids, educators, and other experts, and we couch it in more of a public health alert, it’s information. One of the things that I’m starting to say in my presentations is, we still say, just say no, but we spell it different. We spell it, K-N-O-W. It’s more important than ever that you know what’s going on in the drug world. Because when we were growing up, the way it was described was that you’re going to, at some point experiment with drugs, and the warning was, if you do it too much, or too often, you might get off on the wrong track in your journey. And if you do that, that can lead to addiction and eventually accidental overdose. You’ll take too much of your drug of choice. These days, the drug landscape is more like a minefield where if you don’t know where the mines are, your next step could be your last.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And your first step could be your last. You don’t have to get addicted and then take it so much that you overdose. Are you concerned at all that Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign has been pretty critically viewed these days as being naive and unrealistic, and most devastatingly completely, it didn’t work. It didn’t work, “Just Say No.”

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And yet I feel like we’re back at that stage now where I know that’s what I’m saying to my kids. You can’t do any drugs. We’re back at, “Just Say No,” because all drugs, all of a sudden become so dangerous.

    Ed Ternan:

    Yeah. It’s true. And there’s data to support the fact that, that did not work very well. On the other hand, again, my experience with these different stakeholder groups is that there’s too much absolutist thinking going on. So I don’t mind a harm reduction person who says not everyone’s going to relate to a prevention message of “Just Say No.” But what they do say is, “Nobody relates to that. It’s a waste of time. Don’t bother.” Well, you can’t measure a negative. They can’t measure all the kids who don’t show up at the doorstep of a recovery center because the message they heard in eighth grade did take hold. So some kids are – they’re warned enough and they’re concerned enough when they hear these warnings that they do stay away from dangerous drug behavior. On the other hand, we really do have to change the way we talk to young people about drugs in America.

    And it has to start younger. And it has to be a conversation that includes cough syrup and Tylenol. Parents need to start talking to their kids about, this is why we give you this medication. This is what it’s for. And no brother, you don’t get any because you don’t have a headache, but sister does, we give it to her, and she only takes this much. And we don’t ever take anything that doesn’t come from mom and dad. And we start having the conversation about know where your drugs come from very, very early on. And we have done market research with our partners, in fact, Snapchat commissioned a survey of about 2000 young people under the age of, between 13 and 24. And one of the things that comes out is this generation really does want to have the facts. They’re bombarded with information and data all the time.

    Ed Ternan:

    And so if we take the tack in empowering them and saying, “Here’s what you need to know,” and then trusting them a little bit to make a better informed decision. That might be one of the ways we update the drug conversation. And then I know we keep referring back to our friend, Sam. I agree with his take that we need to start talking about the neurobiology, and what goes on in your brain, in your body with these substances. Because again, this information is empowering and that’s what these young people want.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What more should all these tech companies be doing to try and stop the sales of these pills on their sites, given the reality of what we’re dealing with here, on Snapchat messages that vanish as soon as you read them? Dealing with anything on the internet can be so difficult, but a lot of these tech companies have been under fire for a lot of their practices when it comes to self-image and self-harm – especially with our young adults and our kids. What should they be doing specifically about this that they’re not already doing?

    Ed Ternan:

    I would say working together, because there is a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of technology that can be shared. There’s a lot of data gathered on the back end of all of these sites and networks that could be shared together to figure out what the drug dealers are doing and where they’re doing it. So a coalition of tech firms that would come together to share information. Again, I’d like to see the government and government agencies get behind that and encourage that and engage with the tech companies in that kind of a joint effort. One of the things that people say is, well, it’s whack-a-mole.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It does feel like whack-a-mole though.

    Ed Ternan:

    It is whack-a-mole. And this is why we focus so much on educating kids and reducing demand, because dealers will always pivot and cartels will always pivot. And the DEA will say, “We only stop about 10% of the drugs that come into this country. And it’s whack-a-mole, and they change tactics. And we’re doing the best we can.” And most of the time, when a social media company makes the same statement: “We’re doing the best we can, it’s whack-a-mole, they change their tactics all the time. This is really complicated.” When the DEA says it, the public goes, thank you for your service. How can we support you? When the social media tech companies do it, the public goes, you should be out of business. You’re not doing enough. I’d like to see the hyperbole and the finger pointing settle down a little bit, and people sitting around the table and rolling up their sleeves and sharpening their pencils together to address this problem.

    I wonder, Elizabeth, if the country isn’t finally fed up. I wonder if the cartels haven’t finally overplayed their hand with this tactic of working really hard to produce realistic looking counterfeit medicines and sell them to minors in America. It could be that that’s the last straw, and it’s time for us finally to come together and address that problem. And I will tell you one last thing, because I want to make sure we get this in. A lot of parent groups have been working for a lot long time to raise awareness. And 2022 is going to be a watershed movement for that effort. A watershed moment for that movement and that effort. And one of the things that we are doing is in May, we’re involved with the group that’s going to put on a national fentanyl awareness day on the 10th of May, which is right at the front end of mental health month.

    And this is going to be big. We have a very big name, corporate sponsors. We have an advisory council with very powerful high-profile experts on it. And these people are all coming together to really ring the bell loudly on a national stage that it’s time to get serious about this issue, and make sure everyone knows that it’s going on.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. Right. Well, thank you so much. Your nonprofit, Song for Charlie, established in your son’s name has done amazing work on this. And it is so important to get this word out to everyone about the dangers of these pills. It’s just incredible. As we leave, I just would like to hear, tell me about your son. What was he like?

    Mary Ternan:

    This always happens. Charlie was a great guy. Everybody loved to be around Charlie. He was known as the glue. He’d bring all different groups of friends together and then they’d all be friends. He was smart. He was kind. He was thoughtful. He was funny. He had a belly laugh. Yeah. He was just a great guy. He was just a great guy. We miss him terribly.

    Ed Ternan:

    Our whole family does.

    Mary Ternan:

    Yeah.

    Ed Ternan:

    And we say a lot to the people we come in contact with that, this is just such a disaster. We say, you really do not want this to happen to you. We’re almost two years out from Charlie’s death, and it’s still difficult to talk about it. What we’re trying to do, Elizabeth, what gives us a little bit of hope, is that these deaths among young people who are being deceived by these fake pills, these are the most preventable deaths in the entire spectrum of the drug overdose crisis, because these kids are not asking for fentanyl. So if we can tell them, if they can spread the word and word starts to get out that these pills are fake, this is not what you want. The drug supply is really contaminated right now. We think we can chip away at this category of victim and change the minds and change the behaviors. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Charlie didn’t want to die. He just wanted to take the edge off on a Thursday afternoon, and this is what happened.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, Ed and Mary, there are a lot of people who I think part of them would’ve died, losing their son, and would never have been able to stand back up after being knocked down by a loss like this, and make it a cause and make it their life’s mission to prevent the tragedy from happening to other families. So thank you so much for all the work you’re doing. Thank you for being on Heart of the Matter. Mary, thank you for just showing me that handsome picture of your son.

    Mary Ternan:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I really appreciate you being here and good luck with your work. I really hope people will listen to you as you go around the country and share your story, and share your mission. Thank you.

    Mary Ternan:

    And thank you for spreading the word as well.

    Ed Ternan:

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

    Contact us

    Please use the form below to contact us with any questions or feedback related to Heart of the Matter.



    Published

    April 2022