A Deadly North State Epidemic: Fentanyl Poisoning Shatters Families, Destroys Lives

Fentanyl poisoning killed 13-year-old Luca Manuel in 2020. Photo courtesy of Amanda Faith Eubanks.

Editor’s note: Today’s article was written by Nima Nazari as part of the California Humanities Emerging Journalist Fellowship program in collaboration with Shasta Community College and the Shasta College Foundation. Welcome, Nima Nazari, to A News Cafe.

Photo source: Poison.org.

Preface: The opioid epidemic has reached its next chapter here in the North State. The evolution of opioids has created a troubling issue that has been destroying communities and families. Our nation is at risk of a public-safety crisis. This article will touch on how the fentanyl poisoning epidemic came to fruition, as well as the causes, outcomes, and the overall severity of the issue at hand.

A November 2018 photo of Luca Manuel and his mother Amanda Faith Eubanks.

A parent’s love for their child is without any conditions or limitations. Regardless of the circumstances, a parent will protect their child at any cost, but there are certain situations that the most protective parent cannot prevent.

Such was the case for Luca Manuel, who was a bright and intelligent Redding teenager. After the COVID-19 lockdown, Luca was supposed to start the 8th grade and return to in-person learning. August 13, 2020, would have been his first day of class.

On August 12, 2020, Luca, for whatever reason, attempted to buy a semi-synthetic opioid pain pill. Instead, he was sold a counterfeit Percocet which he acquired through Snapchat. That pill was found to be 100 percent fentanyl, and that tragic morning, Luca overdosed and died.

In truth, Luca was poisoned. Luca Manuel will never get to attend his high school prom. He will never get the chance to graduate high school or college, and his family will never get to see him evolve and grow throughout life.

Amanda Faith Eubanks with a younger Luca Manuel in happier times.

Luca died from fentanyl poisoning at the age of 13. His mother, Amanda Faith Eubanks, will never get to hug or kiss her son again. The last time hugged her son was through a body bag.

About fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times stronger than morphine, and 50 times stronger than heroin. Fentanyl is exceptionally dangerous due to its potency and the speed with which it reacts with the brain. It only takes two milligrams of fentanyl to kill someone. To put that into perspective, a sweetener packet you might put in your coffee contains 1,000 milligrams.

Photo source: PBS

Fentanyl overdoses in 2021 have become the number one cause of deaths among adults age 18-45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 12-month period from April, 2020, to April, 2021, the United States surpassed 100,000 overdoses fatalities. Of those, more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths were due to fentanyl.

Based on statistics from the California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard, which is a collaboration between the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the California Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI), California alone had 3946 deaths related to fentanyl overdoses in 2020. According to Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency Shasta County has had 29 deaths related to fentanyl overdoses and poisoning from 2020-2021.

Two milligrams of fentanyl, showed to the right of the penny, is enough to be a fatal dose.

What most people don’t realize is that a lot of these overdoses can be considered poisoning. The definition of poisoning is unintentionally taking or being given a substance that is injurious to health or can cause death.

Fentanyl was originally produced by pharmaceutical companies to combat severe pain that came from cancer or surgeries. However, recently manufactured fentanyl, produced and sold on a larger scale has flowed through American cities and towns. Over the last couple of years, Northern California has seen a major increase in fentanyl related deaths. This increase of deaths is largely due to people being poisoned by being misled or told the narcotic they are buying is something else.

Susan Foster, chief medical officer with Hill Country Health and Wellness Center said, “A lot of people think they’re buying meth, or pressed Xanax pills, or Norcos, and they are buying those, but they also have fentanyl.”

Another reason for the deaths is the large influx of fentanyl being trafficked over the border from Mexico into the United States. Fentanyl is almost impossible to see, smell, or taste, and is a lot more potent, cheaper to produce, and easier to disguise than other drugs. While this can be appealing to fentanyl addicts or people trying to acquire fentanyl, it is dangerous for those who are experimenting or trying different substances. This becomes problematic due to users not knowing that the drugs they are buying or using may be cut with fentanyl or straight fentanyl. As Luca’s mother, Amanda, said, “Our son was murdered with poison. There’s a huge difference to me. If Luca was given a Percocet, he would still be here.”

Luca Manuel and his mother Amanda Eubanks Faith.

Luca’s story is a prime example of the horrible outcomes when fentanyl is sold as something else. While the opioid epidemic has paved the way for organized crime and cartels to profit from addiction, communities are at risk of a major healthcare crisis due to the potency of fentanyl and the drug dealers’ desire for money.

When looking at Shasta County and the rest of the nation, we can see that the prevalence of fentanyl-laced drugs has become a massive public safety issue.

Fentanyl’s beginnings

During the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies were reassuring doctors and the medical community that opioids were the best treatment for pain, and that patients would not become addicted to opioid prescription pills. Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, these pharmaceutical companies were giving incentives and bonuses to doctors for prescribing their opioid pain killers. During this time many doctors overprescribed oxycontin, oxycodone, and fentanyl, and a large number of patients became addicted to their prescription medications.

Opioid overdoses and misuse continued to rise until the government stepped in and tightened regulations and guidelines regarding doctors prescribing opioid medication. This created a paradox where people who were misusing their prescriptions and cut off from their medication shifted to other means of medicating. Heroin became more prevalent due to tightened regulations regarding prescribing opioid medications. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 80 percent of people who use heroin started with the misuse of prescription opioids.

Fast forward to today, when fentanyl has started to gain traction among addicts. Heroin and prescription pills are becoming irrelevant due to fentanyl’s potency and relative affordability when compared with heroin and prescription medications. Most fentanyl users say it doesn’t make sense to buy or use anything else.

One Northern California fentanyl dealer who wished to remain anonymous said, “Once fentanyl started to gain traction, all my clientele moved from heroin to fentanyl, Even most heroin is cut with fentanyl anyways. No one is trying to spend more money on something less potent.”

When fentanyl was originally created by the pharmaceutical companies, it was intended for pain management treatment, as well as a sedative for surgeries. Before the widespread manufacturing of illicit fentanyl, it was created and regulated by medical professionals. In a legitimate pharmaceutical lab and setting, doctors and chemists would manufacture fentanyl into patches, pills, and liquid that would have certain potency and doses that were regulated by the FDA.

There has always been abuse with fentanyl, but the overdose fatalities were never as high as we see today. When we look at the fentanyl produced today that is being pressed into pills or sold in powder form, it does not have FDA guidelines or regulations to follow. Most fentanyl that we see on our streets is made in China and shipped to Mexico, then smuggled and trafficked over the border. Often the chemicals needed to make fentanyl are ordered from China and manufactured in makeshift labs in Mexico.

The major problem with this is that the potency can vary from batch to batch, and there is no way to determine which one is stronger than the other. Illicit manufactured fentanyl has become commonly mixed with other drugs like heroin, prescription pills, cocaine, methamphetamine, and in some cases, marijuana. A fentanyl-laced drug is extremely dangerous because the person consuming it might not even be aware that there is any fentanyl in their drug. A person who has never done an opioid will most likely overdose due to their tolerance being nonexistent.

Hill Country’s Foster stated, “For a patient that is opioid naïve, meaning they don’t take pain medication or they don’t take narcotics, a tiny bit of fentanyl can make a person overdose.”

The issue that we are facing in our communities with the fentanyl epidemic is that people who have no desire to use fentanyl are being misled. There are also many addicts who wish to access fentanyl, but arguably many more who want nothing to do with it. Fentanyl lacing has created a recipe for disaster. It is difficult to mix evenly, so no pill or powder has the same amount of fentanyl.

Fentanyl poisoning or drug overdose?

How do we determine if someone has overdosed or was poisoned, and how do we distinguish the difference? The key aspect in recognizing the difference is if the person was aware that drug they bought or took is what they wanted. When a person takes fentanyl without realizing it, they often find themselves in a very dangerous situation. A person who might want to use fentanyl can take measures to prevent an overdose by having Narcan (Naloxone), or by being prepared for the outcome. But a person without experience taking opioids or fentanyl is placed at a dangerous disadvantage.

Without the preventive measures, a person is playing Russian roulette with the drugs they are taking. On Jan. 18, 2021, three individuals were found dead a Park Marina residence in Redding. The autopsies showed that the three men, Austin Tod Mclemore, Joshua Daniel Severson, and Ryan Justin Bertz, all died from fentanyl poisoning. All three had no idea that they were taking fentanyl. None of these three men had any idea that this night would be their last. None of the men anticipated that a night of partying would turn tragic due to fentanyl poisoning.

How fentanyl works

When a person uses fentanyl it activates the opioid receptors which release dopamine. These receptors are located in areas of the brain known as the reward pathway, and when these opioid receptors are activated, it provides pain relief and feeling of euphoria. The more these opioid receptors are activated, the more a person starts to build a tolerance. They will need more and more of a dose to achieve the same feeling. Opioids act as a depressant on the central nervous system which can block pain sensations, and slow heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration functions.

When a person doesn’t have a tolerance and consumes fentanyl to a point of overdose there are a number of things that happen to the body. First, the veins that return blood to the heart can collapse, which can suppress normal blood flow throughout the body. Second, oxygen flow to the brain can become limited and cause seizures or permanent brain damage. Third, fentanyl can interfere with the receptors between the brain and the heart, causing the heart to slow down and, in fatal doses, can cause cardiac arrest. When a person’s breathing becomes shallow, oxygen levels decrease, which causes a person’s fingernails and lips to turn blue. Fourth, a fentanyl overdose can cause respiratory depression. Without oxygen the brain and heart cannot function and the body starts to shut down. Pulmonary edema can also happen; this is when a fluid leak fills up the air spaces in the lungs. This is extremely dangerous because it can cause a person to foam at the mouth and suppress their gag reflex, which makes it almost impossible to swallow or spit. Because of this, when a person vomits from trying to purge the fentanyl from their body, they can aspirate, choke, and drown in their own vomit.

Fentanyl’s potency has even made it difficult to counter with Narcan. This life-saving drug has been used to counter overdoses with opioids for some time now, but fentanyl is so much stronger that one dose of Narcan is usually not sufficient.

The Northern California fentanyl dealer said, “I have seen a vast majority of people overdose, and that I always keep Narcan on me, but with fentanyl one is not enough. I have personally used three Narcan on a single person, and if I didn’t have more than one, that person would have died.”

Drug addiction stigma

In addition to the tragedy of the fentanyl epidemic, another major issue is the stigmatization of addiction. There has always been an us-versus-them mentality with drug addiction. With the current state of the fentanyl epidemic, that type of mentality is not going to help save lives in our communities. Too many innocent lives are being lost, and from my research and investigation of the fentanyl epidemic, I have found that many people still judge and stereotype these deaths as self-inflicted. As long as we are separating and stigmatizing, we are not truly protecting ourselves from the dangers that our children are facing. One statement that I have seen repeatedly on social media comments is, “just another druggie dead.”

The problem with this statement is that in most of these fentanyl poisoning cases, the person who died was never an addict, and didn’t fit the description of a drug abuser. As in the case of Luca, he was a 13-year-old child.

People who still view this issue as a personal problem do not realize the magnitude of what we are facing.

Luca’s mother, Amanda Faith said, “Fentanyl doesn’t care if you are 13 or 30. So it’s important to end the stigma so we can hopefully give more people justice if they die this way and more people will realize it’s a danger in our community.”

Most people don’t realize how serious the problem is until it hits close to home. With the current death rate of fentanyl poisoning and the amount of fentanyl being seized every day, I don’t see this problem going away anytime soon.

The wave of the opioid epidemic is building to a full tsunami. With the current explosion of fentanyl-related deaths, it is only logical for us to be concerned. In order for communities and society as a whole to turn the tide, we must fight the stigmatization of addiction and put aside our judgmental views. Every person has a story, and while some can be more tragic than others, we all are humans at the end of the day. No matter a person’s race, gender, age or struggles, everyone is entitled to a life. Way too many young adults and children’s lives are being taken early due to fentanyl, and a course of action is required to combat the wide array of deaths.

The recent attention being brought to the fentanyl epidemic is a good start for awareness. The more attention brought to the matter, the more people see how relevant and serious this issue is.

Amanda Faith has been an advocate for fentanyl poisoning awareness since her son’s death.

Luca Manuel photo courtesy of Amanda Faith Eubanks.

She advices that the best approach to tackling the fentanyl is awareness and early education in schools. Providing information about the dangers of fentanyl is key in battling this issue. The lives of many are at stake, and as a community we must be willing to provide knowledge and education to others to ensure public safety.

Nima Nazari is 34 years old. He was born and raised in Redding, Calif. He graduated with honors and dual Associated Arts degrees — Social Science and Natural Science –from Shasta College.

He plans on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in radiology or programming. He was selected to be a part of the
Fellowship Program through Shasta College and California Humanities to report on an important North State issue. He chose the subject of Shasta County’s fentanyl epidemic, and how its devastation upon our community.


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