BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — “Why” is a common question among the parents and family members of people lost to America’s illicit drug de jour, the powerful opioid fentanyl.
Answers are hard to come by. Harder still is figuring out what to do about it.
Carrie Walker is one of those parents — but she has decided on a path forward. Her eldest son, Alexander Cullers, died of an opiate overdose in 2014 at the age of 18. He’d taken some prescription oxycodone from his girlfriend’s grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
“He was rambunctious, crazy, always had a lot of energy — but the most loving kid you’ve met,” she said. “He suffered from anxiety, depression, and fought that a lot of his life.”
Losing a son would devastate any mother. But then in April 2019 Walker’s other son, Andrew Cullers — by then 18 himself — died of an overdose too. In his case, fentanyl — counterfeit oxy.
“Losing one child to it, your fear of losing another child is just so great,” Walker said. “With Andrew I was like — I educated him. We talked about it. There were times like — I caught him smoking pot — I sat down with him and cried and said, ‘I cannot lose another child — I won’t survive it.’ He said, ‘I would never try opiates, I know what they do.’”
Then one night he didn’t come home. His friend found him in his car, in Arvin, where he’d been parked at a gas station for two days, somehow undetected.
Walker seized upon the only survival strategy she could think of — educating others. She has started a nonprofit called Steps of Change — a Facebook-based organization that has morphed from the school assembly speech circuit into what she thinks it really needs to be — a place for referrals, support, networking.
“It’s amazing how many people, how appreciative and how — sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve all that praise,” she said. “People are just amazing. I don’t know how many times I hear, ‘You’re strong, it’s amazing what you do, you’re going to touch lives, you’re gonna change lives, you’re gonna do amazing things.’”
“No,” she said. “That’s the easy thing to say, easy for them to say, ‘cause what else are you gonna say? ‘Cause you lost two children. But what do they say to you? Nothing you can say but, ‘You’re strong.’
“I do what I do (out of) anger. There’s a lot of different emotions in it – but anger. Our children – it’s killing our children. You gotta do something.”
She found strength in the strength of others. Others like Louie Wright, a one-time heroin addict turned minister. He runs One Door Recovery, one of the very few — now perhaps the only — opioid detox centers in Bakersfield.
And he is seeing something now in the rising threat of fentanyl he hasn’t seen before. Fentanyl is showing up in everything, including non-opiates.
“We’re finding guys that are using methamphetamine that has fentanyl in it for the drug market,” he said. “That makes it a little more addictive. So we’re not just seeing it with opiates.
“A lot of that’s coming in is coming from Asia, the cartels, Mexico, and it’s a lot cheaper for them … to use fentanyl than it is for them to go through opium harvesting. It’s actually pretty rare to find heroin today that’s truly heroin.”
Since becoming a minister nearly a decade ago, Wright has presided over dozens of funerals and only one of them, he said — one — was for a natural-causes death. The rest have been drug related.
“This is the problem that we’re seeing: Methamphetamine, cocaine, all of these drugs. Will they kill you? Sure. Are they likely to? Over long periods of time, they can. There’s ways you can die, I’m not saying that you can’t. (But) heroin today — it’s gonna kill you. It’s like Russian Roulette every time you use it.”
Thanks to the pervasive presence of fentanyl, the fear of instant death now applies to every drug on the street.
KGET witnessed one user of crystal meth, a non-opioid stimulant, use a special test strip to determine whether fentanyl was present in the dose he was preparing to inject. Two red lines meant no fentanyl was detected and one red line means it’s there.
The verdict — one red line. The addict, who asked for anonymity, shot up his his full, regular dose anyway. He just — as advised – made sure he had a friend with him and a dose of the opioid overdose antidote Narcan close at hand.
There’s not enough Narcan to go around, common though it might now be. America will knock back this fentanyl crisis only with education and reasoned, thoughtful enforcement.
John Harte of Bakersfield, who lost two nephews, Dylan and Camren Harte, just nine months apart last year, says legislation that increases penalties for street dealers is a big part of the answer.
“What I’m urging my brother and the group he’s involved with to do,” Harte said, “is instead of trying to pressure the police, whose hands are tied by existing laws, to direct their efforts at the state legislature — see if we can get ourselves to the point where they can toughen up those laws so that not only the big dealers pay the price but also the street dealers.”
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer notes that Kern’s 125 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2020 nearly equaled the record 140 local homicides. And she agrees with John Harte. State sentencing laws need to be toughened – but she also says parents must be made aware of the danger. She aims to do that.
“When kids come back to school in the fall, because they’re at home now, we’re going to do a push to make sure parents know about fentanyl,” she said. “Sometimes kids think they’re buying ecstasy or Xanax or some of the other drugs, and it’s not – it’s fentanyl. So it can be very, very deadly. So we want to be able to get a push out there to the schools in the fall to make sure that they understand and kids can understand.”
At one time legislation was, in fact, in the pipeline, but it took a different tack. State Sen. Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Riverside County, tried to push through a law that would have treated repeat fentanyl dealers who kill like repeat DUI drivers who kill. It failed in the Legislature’s spring session, but she’s not giving up.
“We are considering options because obviously we didn’t have much success in the committee hearing,” she said. “So there is an option of doing a ballot measure, perhaps where we would let voters decide if that is how they want to handle this. We haven’t made a decision yet but we are looking.
“It’s that important. There’s too many people — we had over two hours of testimony of people who have lost a loved one from this drug. I can’t in good conscience stand by and do nothing.”
And now, as deadly as fentanyl has proven to be, a more deadly chemical cousin looms on the horizon. Carfenital, a structural analog of fentanyl, is starting to show up in street drugs — and it is 100 times more likely to kill than fentanyl.
It has only two legitimate applications — as a tranquilizing agent for elephants and, theoretically, in military operations. Banned under the international Chemical Weapons Convention, carfentanil was used, most infamously, during the 2002 Moscow opera-house hostage crisis when Chechen rebels seized the packed Dubrovka Theater. The Russian military — in an attempt to incapacitate the 40 terrorists — pumped in aerosolized carfentanil. It killed 120 of 850 Russian hostages. Some have likened its potency to nerve gas.
And now it’s coming to the streets of Bakersfield — disguised, cruelly again, as oxycodone.
Hillcrest Cemetery, in northeast Bakersfield, has a special significance for Carrie Walker. Her boys are here — Alex and Andrew — born seven years apart but 18 now, both of them, forever, buried in the same plot, having suffered the same fate.
A fate that might not have befallen them if not for a man-made pandemic built on profit, addiction and deception.
That’s why we’re telling these stories. Because fentanyl is not an ordinary drug. It is not the sort of manageable high that your son or daughter might think it is — in part because they may not even know that’s what they’re taking. We’re telling these stories so families can talk to each other about the reality of fentanyl, about the finality of fentanyl. Now — while it’s still possible to have those conversations.
The lethal synthetic cousin of prescription opioids that continues to make its presence known in cemeteries across the land, fentanyl, is not slowing — it is gaining momentum, even morphing into forms more diabolical yet, and unless some combination of education, legislation and communication takes hold soon, the coronavirus outbreak will not be the only health tragedy of this moment in time that we’ll look back on a generation from now with dismay and regret.
If you have concerns that someone you know might be using drugs that could contain fentanyl — and that deadly ingredient is turning up more and more in virtually all street drugs, even non-opioids — you can call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or the Kern County Behavioral Health Hotline at 1-800-991-5272. You can also visit the webpages of local organizations Steps of Change, One Door Recovery and Bakersfield Recovery Services. National recovery sites include the Department of Health and Human Services Opioids crisis page and the Partnership to End Addiction webpage. Click here to purchase or learn more about Narcan nasal spray (Naloxone).