They held prom pictures and high school yearbook cutouts. They wore t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with faces, names, birthdays—and death dates. They drove from all over California to tell lawmakers that their children were “killed” or “murdered.”
Not by random violent criminals, gun-toting gang members, or mass shooters—but by drug dealers.
Inside a drab hearing room in a state Capitol annex, they lined up in front of a tall plexiglass divider to express their support for Senate Bill 44, otherwise known as “Alexandra’s Law,” which would help prosecutors bring murder charges against convicted drug dealers. For some grieving parents, laws like this represent a path to justice—the only way to punish the people they believe “poisoned” their children in a country that has gone soft against hardened criminals. For others, it’s a doomed latter-day embrace of the war on drugs that will only bring more pain and suffering.
On that March morning in Sacramento, Alexandra’s surviving parents, Matt and Christine Capelouto, sat eagerly in the gallery waiting for their cause to be taken up by the public safety committee. This was the third time the project named for their daughter had a hearing in three years; twice already, the committee—currently comprising four Democrats and one Republican—had voted it down. Each loss left an army of bereaved parents livid, and none more than the Capeloutos.
“We’ve allowed drug dealers to become serial killers,” Matt Capelouto told me. “It’s so hard to hold these drug dealers accountable in states like ours. We need to change that.”
They were determined to try again. Christine held a framed picture of Alexandra, smiling big with bright blonde hair, as she gently pleaded for the senators’ support. Matt spoke next, the room encased in a quiet tension. He approached the clear divider, looked senators square in the eye, raised his right index finger into the air, and, his voice trembling, intoned, “On behalf of all fentanyl poisoning victims, strong support.”
Families like the Capeloutos are adamant that their child did not experience some sort of self-imposed tragedy. Instead, they use the word “poisoned,” which makes it clear there is a villain in the mix here—and it certainly was not their kid. “I will never say my daughter died of a drug overdose,” Capelouto said, adding, “She was deceived to death.” Alexandra Capelouto died in December 2019, when she was 20 years old. She had purchased pills off the social-media app Snapchat that she believed were oxycodone, but turned out to be fentanyl, a much more potent opioid. Investigators believe Alexandra crushed and snorted at least one pill, enough to deliver a fatal dose for someone without a tolerance.
The data shows the Capeloutos’ anguish is far from anecdotal: The number of young people dying from fentanyl is spiking in unprecedented fashion.
Alexandra’s Law, if passed, would require courts to issue a written admonishment to defendants convicted of a range of fentanyl-related offenses, from possessing for sale to sharing or transporting the drug. The rebuke would alert the defendant that selling or giving away drugs could result in death, and that, if they do it again and somebody dies as a result, they could be on the hook for murder.
The bill falls under a category of controversial “drug-induced homicide” laws that seek to hold drug distributors criminally responsible for overdose deaths. Such laws are not exactly new, but since fentanyl has taken over the drug market, their popularity has exploded. After his daughter’s death, Matt Capelouto became president of a foundation called Drug-Induced Homicide, dedicated to passing these kinds of laws. If you visit his foundation’s website—druginducedhomicide.org—you will see this question in big block letters pop up on the screen: “Why are drug dealers getting away with MURDER?”
There is another set of parents who share the Capeloutos’ grief, but not their response. In fact, they vehemently disagree with activist efforts aimed at dealers. This group is personified by Aimee Dunkle, a bereaved mom from Orange County and a board member of Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, or GRASP. Dunkle, too, was there in Sacramento on that March morning, and anticipation in the room mounted as she stepped up to the plexiglass divider to argue against the bill. Dunkle acknowledged the shared experience of the parents. (“We may not be united in policy, but we are united in unimaginable pain.”) Then she explained how her son Ben’s heart stopped beating after he used heroin with a group of friends, and how one of his friends had a criminal record because of drugs and was afraid to dial 911. “It was not heroin that killed Ben that night,” she said. “It was fear.”
Dunkle said that her son was not murdered; his death was initially investigated as a homicide, but police later ruled it an accident. “The law enforcement officer said to me, ‘Mrs. Dunkle, your son made a choice that night. Nobody forced him to buy heroin.’” The point, if a bit harsh, eventually resonated with Dunkle, who thinks that, instead of deterring drug use or dealing, bills like SB 44 would discourage more people from calling for help if doing so meant the possibility of a future murder charge.
The hearing for Alexandra’s Law exposed a deep and bitter split among thousands of families who have endured a most primal loss. What one mom explained to me as “a great grief divide” runs across the country, with parents disagreeing about the very core meaning of their child’s death. Was their child “poisoned” by a malicious drug dealer who should pay for their crime? Or did their child die from a tragic “overdose” that, with better public health policy and education, could have been prevented? Parents on both sides of the grief divide want their child’s death to mean something.
Inevitably, this parental divide has mapped onto our political divide, and is funneling into a fiery new frontier of America’s cascading culture wars. The right has taken up the cause of the “murder” faction. Some in the GOP have called for bombing clandestine drug labs in Mexico. Donald Trump has made fentanyl a centerpiece of his 2024 campaign, and he wants to swiftly execute drug dealers—the way, he says, they do in China.
Many Democrats and liberals, meanwhile, tend to see in the urge to crack down on dealers—some of whom may not even have known they were selling fentanyl-laced pills—a time warp back to the Reagan era. “Simply making it easier to prosecute someone for murder will not address or solve this problem,” California Senator Steven Bradford, whose district includes Compton and West Compton, said during the March hearing where senators debated Alexandra’s Law. He added, “We’ve seen this movie before—in the ’80s and ’90s—with mass incarceration and zero tolerance in the war on drugs.” This is why the Democratic-controlled committee voted Alexandra’s Law down.
For a long time, public sentiment seemed to be inching toward the latter, more realist view. Nearly a decade ago, polling showed most Americans had soured on harsh tactics against drugs—63 percent believed ending mandatory minimum drug sentences to be “a good thing,” and just 26 percent believed the federal government should prioritize prosecuting people for using “hard drugs.” Now, most Americans still believe the war on drugs to be an abject failure, but fentanyl and all its shocking lethality could be creating some doubt. Recent polling by The Economist and YouGov asked Americans whom they blame for the fentanyl crisis, and a vast majority, 74 percent, answered they blame drug dealers the most, as many of these parents do. (China and Mexico tied for second.) As fentanyl deaths reach staggering heights, lawmakers have felt enormous pressure to do something, anything.
And they have. Lawmakers across the country have debated—and, in some cases, passed—harsher fentanyl laws, from new felonies and mandatory minimum sentences for possession to laws that make drug selling akin to murder. Some states have recently hindered public health and harm reduction efforts: Colorado killed a bill that would allow overdose prevention centers, and California’s Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar measure. Idaho voted to limit funding for naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, and West Virginia heavily curtailed syringe access programs. In congressional hearings and statehouses across the country, grieving parents are a common presence. Many say they want “accountability” for drug sellers, and their demands are being heard.
As fentanyl deaths keep surging, more and more parents are finding their way into a bona fide movement to make political sense of the unthinkable. Powered by profound pain, these parents are hell-bent on ending the worst drug crisis ever recorded in U.S. history. What they choose to do with their pain, and who they blame for causing it, could end up leaving a deep imprint on the shape of U.S. drug policy for generations.
That struggle could determine just how many more young people are lost forever.
Sitting in Los Angeles traffic on a Friday afternoon, Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, spouted off a series of terrifying statistics about fentanyl deaths ripping through seemingly every stratum of American life. “There’s never been a modern overdose crisis that’s anything like what we’re seeing in the U.S. right now,” he told me. Unlike heroin, fentanyl is totally synthetic, which means drug traffickers no longer need to pay farmers to cultivate vast fields of poppies. The result is a cheap, abundant, and highly potent opioid feeding America’s voracious demand for pain relief. Friedman explained that young people—and perhaps especially young white people—were once fairly insulated from this crisis, which has spanned more than two decades. But that picture changed around 2019, when a new supply of counterfeit pills hit the scene, particularly on the West Coast. These drugs, dubbed “fentapills” and thought to be made in makeshift labs in Mexico, look like in-demand pharmaceuticals, such as oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
In 2019, 253 adolescents died from fentanyl-involved overdoses in the United States, according to Friedman’s analysis published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. By 2021, that number had risen to 884 deaths—a 249 percent jump. Factoring in deaths from all opioids among young people aged 15 to 24, more than 6,000 died in 2021 alone. “That’s very epidemiologically novel and unprecedented,” Friedman said. “And there’s no sign that those trends are reversing.” Like any good scientist, Friedman listed numerous caveats. Namely that while the teen death rate is rising fast, young people represent a very small portion of the 100,000 drug-related deaths that now occur every year. By proportion, adults in their thirties to fifties still account for the largest slice of mortality. And the analysis acknowledged it was impossible to account for the social impact of the pandemic. But what’s especially striking to Friedman is the role counterfeit pills are playing in the sudden deaths of young people.
In 2021, over a quarter of all the fentanyl seized by law enforcement was disguised in the form of a pill. Researchers suspect law enforcement only captures a small fraction of the illicit drug supply, and there’s millions upon millions of pills flowing. Many parents had no idea what fentanyl even was, let alone that their child could purchase it on social-media platforms like Snapchat. One question that came up again and again was: Why are young people seeking Xanax and oxycodone from their peers or even complete strangers online? Another: Why are dealers giving them such a deadly chemical instead?
“Americans consume a massive amount of pharmaceuticals,” Friedman told me. “It’s totally normalized.” Kids see their friends and parents take pills for all sorts of ailments, and they think they’re safe. The act of taking a prescription pill can seem innocuous. They have no reason to suspect what they’re buying is ultra-potent fentanyl pressed, molded, and colored as popular pills. Young people experimenting and self-medicating with drugs are nothing new. What is new is how lethal that self-medication and experimentation have become, due to knockoff pills.
Alexandra Capelouto’s story illustrates the horrifying trends Friedman found in his research. She was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, her dad explained to me. “She was a very empathetic young lady,” he said. “She always [bore] other people’s pain on her own shoulders.” When she died, Alexandra was on winter break from Arizona State University, where she was studying sociology; she hoped to one day work in foster care to help children. Days before Christmas, she was at her parents’ home in Temecula, a small, picturesque Southern California city that hosts a wine and hot-air balloon festival every year. She was having trouble sleeping, and she wanted something to help. Capelouto told me that someone Alexandra knew referred her to a man around the same age named Brandon McDowell, whom she reached over Snapchat. McDowell agreed to sell her approximately 11 blue pills, inscribed with “M” on one side and “30” on the other, the same inscription as a generic 30-milligram oxycodone.
On December 23, 2019, Alexandra’s sister, Skye, woke up to the sound of her mother screaming and a door slamming shut. Alexandra’s mom found her, slouched on her bed, sitting in front of a mirror she’d used to put on makeup. Grim scenes like this have played out in thousands of homes across the country. Parents walk into their child’s bedroom and attempt to rouse them awake, only to find that they are long gone. Alongside smartphones, headphones, and laptops where they streamed their favorite shows and movies before bed, remnants of drugs are found: crushed powder, rolled-up dollar bills, a handful of pills.
According to Matt Capelouto, the local criminal justice system had no answers for his daughter’s demise. Her death was deemed an accident, and legally the deck was stacked against a homicide case. As of 2019, California was one of 27 states without a drug-induced homicide law on the books, and though California prosecutors can still charge dealers with murder, they must be able to prove malice—that the dealer knew what they were selling was deadly, and that they sold it anyway. That’s what Alexandra’s Law is meant to fix: The admonishment solves the problem of having to prove malice.
Capelouto essentially thinks he got lucky when federal prosecutors took up the case. Though they didn’t file a murder charge, prosecutors initially indicted McDowell on a charge of “distributing fentanyl resulting in death,” which carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. “You can’t tell me that locking him up would not save lives,” Capelouto said. “Common sense tells you, if he’s behind bars, he can’t continue selling more pills.”
Federal fentanyl prosecutions are becoming more common, but remain rare, and Capelouto possessed a mountain of evidence that parents don’t always have. He had access to his daughter’s Snapchat messages and the drug deal documented by home security cameras. Without all this evidence—and without federal intervention—he said, other families in California would have a very difficult time securing convictions, and dealers would get away scot-free. He wants Alexandra’s Law to change all of this.
To make his case, Capelouto zoomed in on what he believed to be the intentionally deceptive nature of the drug deal. Yet the federal government’s own numbers show that dealers rarely misrepresent drugs to their customers on purpose. According to a 2021 report by the United States Sentencing Commission, less than 5 percent of 886 federally convicted fentanyl offenders intentionally misrepresented the substance during the transaction. The commission deemed this sort of deception “particularly aggravating conduct” that results in an even stiffer penalty. In McDowell’s case, the federal prosecutor did not insist on the most severe punishment possible. In fact, McDowell was able to plead to a lesser charge of “possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.” He received a sentence of nine years.
In a press conference in Riverside, California, after the sentencing, Capelouto made it clear he wanted more. “I’m disappointed that Judge Jesus Bernal believed the defendant was not fully aware of the dangers of what he was selling,” Capelouto said at the press conference, standing next to Riverside County’s district attorney and a DEA agent. But there could be an additional reason for the lighter sentence: A condition of McDowell’s probation is that, upon release, he enters addiction treatment and undergoes counseling and drug testing, the implication being that McDowell was also a user of the pills he was selling. Still, in Capelouto’s mind, addiction should not be considered a mitigating factor. “Whether he had a drug habit himself or not should not dismiss, you know, his illegal conduct of being a drug dealer,” he said. (An attorney who represented McDowell declined to comment on the record for this story, and an attempt to reach McDowell directly in federal prison was unsuccessful.)
Some drug policy researchers do support what Capelouto wants. Writing in Scientific American, two veterans of drug policy made the case for targeting “sellers who deliberately sell fentanyl to inexperienced users” over the internet, because these sellers are more likely to cause fatal overdoses. But the drug trade in America is a vastly complicated illegal market, and young people buying pills online make up only a small part of it. A new RAND report analyzing America’s “opioid ecosystem” concluded that “drug-induced homicide laws make little sense, especially in the era of synthetic opioids.” The reason why, the authors write, goes back to the intent of sellers and consumers. Due to illicit fentanyl contaminating the broader drug supply, the authors suggest, both sellers and consumers are often unaware of what’s really in their drugs. In other words, drug-related deaths could be caused by ignorance rather than malice.
That ignorance is by design. Illegal drugs are inherently risky; they do not tend to be sold alongside a list of ingredients. The truth, according to multiple drug policy experts, is that almost a decade into this horrifying wave of fentanyl deaths, very little is known about dealers and what they know or don’t know.
What we do know is that decades of research show that aggressive drug enforcement and lengthy prison sentences do not meaningfully reduce drug use or drug overdoses at all. The theory of deterrence has simply not held up against the economic or social realities that compel people to use or deal drugs. Other research shows that most drug arrests are for minute quantities, oftentimes less than a gram, which cannot possibly make a dent in availability or price. And since fentanyl is synthetic, large shipments that get seized can be quickly reproduced and replaced in the market. The days of “droughts” are largely over. Perhaps most damning to the case for aggressive drug enforcement, especially at the street level, is a new line of research suggesting that local drug seizures are actually associated with more overdose events, not fewer. Traditional policing and drug enforcement look increasingly futile in the fentanyl era.
Capelouto has heard most (if not all) of this before. He is undeterred. He sticks to his own experience, and to his belief that drug dealers are greedy, deceptive, and that they should be punished—whether it solves the fentanyl crisis or not. In the case of his own daughter, he ultimately did succeed in achieving at least part of his vision of justice. Even if it wasn’t the 20-year penalty he hoped for, he said he was still “grateful” for the outcome: The young man who sold the fake pills will spend nine years in federal prison for it.
In federal court, Capelouto spoke directly to McDowell. He held a blue urn that contained Alexandra’s ashes, and he said, “If there is anything I would wish for today, it would be to hear Alex’s voice…. I just want to hear her voice.” Capelouto is fueled by his own agony. “The grief is daily,” he said. “It’s never-ending.” In this fight, his pain has found a purpose. “I have never sought any professional counseling or therapy,” he told me. “This is the best way to deal with it. And, ultimately, hopefully, save others.”
The sympathetic parent—white and suburban—has long played an influential role in shaping America’s drug policy. In his forthcoming book, The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs, University of Michigan historian Matthew Lassiter refers to this movement as “Parent Power.” In California in the 1950s, it was suburban parents who advocated for the kinds of mandatory minimums that would later be popularized in the Reagan-era war on drugs. He also found that those same parents hoped to shield their children from the punitive laws they supported. Lassiter even coined a name for the white youth victims of America’s drug war: “impossible criminals,” he calls them. Considered to be victims of “the urban pusher, foreign trafficker, and predatory ghetto addict” imagined as “‘wolf packs’ and ‘rat packs’ invading white communities to peddle drugs,” Lassiter writes, America’s youth were to be protected from the hordes, and if they succumbed to drug use, they were afforded the option of treatment instead of punishment. Throughout history, Lassiter argues, this agenda was pursued by both liberal and conservative politicians.
To understand the evolution of parent activism, Lassiter said that he has his students read a 2015 New York Times article with the headline, “IN HEROIN CRISIS, WHITE FAMILIES SEEK GENTLER WAR ON DRUGS.” These families, the paper reported, were “part of a growing backlash against the harsh tactics of traditional drug enforcement.” The grieving parents lobbied statehouses, held rallies, and started nonprofits, using their credibility to advocate for policies rooted in health care rather than jails and prisons. These parents were portrayed as well-to-do and well-organized. “Punishment is out and compassion is in,” the Times wrote of these parents, while also noting the stark lack of empathy when drugs, not long ago, devastated Black communities, and the response was draconian drug enforcement and incarceration.
In a political twist, parents like the Capeloutos have formed a frontlash to the backlash against drug enforcement that began when heroin shattered suburban families. Now, compassion is out, and justice and retribution are in—at least among a newer cohort of families who are suffering another wave of unspeakable tragedy in the age of fentanyl. To help them pursue their goal of justice, and to change laws, families like the Capeloutos have built relationships with traditionally conservative institutions, from local prosecutors and sheriffs to federal law enforcement. But parents battling over drug policy today are not consciously modeling themselves after suburban parents of the 1950s. Instead, they may be looking back to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan became president and a new conservative mood took hold. An article in Kaiser Health News referred to the Capeloutos as being part of a new “MADD movement,” alluding to the extraordinary success of Reagan-era parents who fought for tougher drunk-driving laws under the mantle of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Candace Lightner, who goes by Candy, started MADD in 1980 after her daughter, Cari, was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Lightner grew furious at laws she deemed to be far too lenient. Still active in politics to this day, Lightner wrote a letter backing Alexandra’s Law. “She supported our bill 110 percent,” Capelouto said.
Of course, one key difference between drunk driving and the current fentanyl crisis, critics of harsher laws say, is the potential for those who get involved with fentanyl to do so unwittingly—something virtually no drunk driver could ever credibly claim. But the Capeloutos aren’t the only ones looking to MADD for inspiration in the fentanyl era.
Jacqui Berlinn lives an hour outside of San Francisco in a town called Livermore, and she borrowed MADD’s acronym when she formed a group called Mothers Against Drug Deaths. She then changed it to Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths, or MADAAD, after the original group raised trademark concerns. Berlinn’s activism stems from her experience with her 31-year-old son, Corey, who, in the account she frequently gives to news outlets, is currently addicted to fentanyl and living, homeless, on the street in San Francisco. Unlike Capelouto, who is focused on passing new laws, Berlinn appears to aim at provocation, and leans heavily on spectacle that generates attention in the press. Berlinn has protested against drug dealers in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood imagined on Twitter as a druggy hellscape where dealers and users brazenly break the law every day with impunity. In reality, the Tenderloin is a small slice of the city where social services, low-income housing, and addiction treatment are all concentrated, and where deep poverty is, increasingly, in close proximity to high-end luxury apartments for young, tech-savvy workers. Berlinn has also taken part in a protest at Venice Beach, another neighborhood where visible suffering and poverty generate friction with very wealthy Californians. She appeared on Tucker Carlson’s erstwhile show on Fox News to criticize President Joe Biden, and she advocates for aggressive drug enforcement and against harm-reduction services, like overdose prevention sites, which she thinks are “enabling” addiction instead of treating it.
Berlinn’s group has also placed cheeky billboards around California and Washington, D.C. The first went up in April 2022 and caused a local uproar. Floating above an aerial shot of the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk were the words: FAMOUS THE WORLD OVER FOR OUR BRAINS, BEAUTY AND, NOW, DIRT-CHEAP FENTANYL. The bottom text had the call to action: IT’S TIME TO CLOSE OPEN-AIR DRUG MARKETS, the markets where her son buys his drugs. The ad created a headache for Mayor London Breed, who had just traveled to Europe to lure tourists back to San Francisco. The moms soon placed another ad in Sacramento to get the attention of Governor Newsom. Off Interstate-80, the billboard featured the words WELCOME TO CAMP FENTANYL in the style of the National Park Service, with a makeshift tent encampment in the background. In January, the moms had a mobile billboard circling the streets of Washington, D.C. That ad addressed President Biden and his son Hunter, who has struggled with addiction. The ad featured a photo of Berlinn holding a poster of her son, Corey, next to the tagline, PLEASE HELP MY SON ESCAPE ADDICTION THE WAY YOU HELPED HUNTER.
The division between grieving parents mirrors broader societal cleavages over policing and criminal justice reform, but also, increasingly, foreign policy. The moms who started a Facebook group called Lost Voices of Fentanyl, which has about 27,000 members, have protested in front of the White House, using a megaphone to urge Biden to “wake up.” In addition to joining calls for military-style action in Mexico, some of the moms have rallied in front of the Chinese Embassy, blaming the country for the production of fentanyl precursor chemicals.
The Lost Voices of Fentanyl group has helped spread the “poisoning” story far and wide, thanks, in part, to federal law enforcement. Virginia Krieger, one of the moms behind the group, boasts of having a “contract” with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the agency has amplified their preferred language—that fentanyl deaths are not “overdoses” but “poisonings.” “At the risk of jeopardizing our relationship with the DEA, I am not going to discuss the terms of our agreement or what type of agreement it is,” Krieger told me. (A DEA employee clarified that there is no contract, but that the agency maintains a “memorandum of agreement” with various national partners.) Krieger then elaborated, telling me the group’s relationship with the DEA concerns the “The Faces of Fentanyl,” a memorial exhibit inside DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. There, the agency curates a drug museum, featuring seized objects, like an illegal pill press. The Facebook group sends photos of people who died from fentanyl to the DEA, and about 2,000 photos like these are arranged in rows on thick granite walls. Each photo has the first name of the deceased, followed by their age at the time of their death, with the word “forever” next to it.
Capelouto isn’t shy about his personal politics. “I happen to be conservative,” he told me. His ideology came through rather clearly in a 2022 profile that appeared in the right-wing outlet Breitbart News, in which he echoed prominent GOP talking points, often well before those talking points became standard Republican fare. Conservatives tend to describe drugs with a familiar hawkish tone, and speak of fentanyl as a national security threat that requires a military intervention.
In Breitbart, Capelouto referred to Mexican drug cartels as a “terrorist organization,” a designation Biden and other Democrats reject. “Why has our own government never gone beyond our own borders to dismantle these terrorists?” he asked. On Fox News, he described fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction,” another label that Biden’s director of drug policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta, dismisses. The GOP deploys much of the same rhetoric. Trump Attorney General William Barr advocated for the terrorist label in a March op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, in which he wrote, “America can no longer tolerate narco-terrorist cartels.” In November 2022, Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas introduced a bill called the “Declaring War on the Cartels Act.” Also last year, far-right Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert filed the “Fentanyl is a WMD Act” in the House. After Biden announced he’s running for reelection in 2024, the Republican National Committee cut a dystopian “AI-generated” ad depicting what the world would look like if Biden won again. Over the sound of police sirens, a newscaster says, “Officials closed the city of San Francisco this morning, citing the escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.”
It wasn’t always this way. In 2016, polling found that opioids were one of the last remaining issues of bipartisan consensus in the United States, even if Trump was already scapegoating immigrants and falsely portraying asylum-seekers as drug smugglers. The crisis has deepened and worsened since then, diffusing grief and pain across the country, and the two parties now sound as far apart as ever when they invoke drugs. Democrats tend to emphasize the expansion of health care and treatment, while conservatives pitch something more dramatic and sensationalist—they promise they’ll fight back, that they’ll “secure” the southern border, that they’ll bring justice to victims. From the push to label fentanyl a WMD to calling for war against drug cartels, the brash nationalist wing of the Republican Party has taken up the demands of grieving parents.
The Ternan family has decided to follow their own way forward. Ed and Mary Ternan, from Pasadena, lost their son Charlie to fentanyl in May 2020, three weeks before he was set to graduate from Santa Clara University with a degree in economics. Charlie also took a counterfeit pill he had bought over Snapchat. “We’ve zigged where others have zagged,” Ed Ternan told me. He and his family are singularly focused on improving drug education and raising awareness about counterfeit pills and fentanyl’s lethality. Their group, called Song for Charlie, is currently building a drug-education platform for the entire state of California. They chose to deliberately stay out of the political arena, because they fear politics could derail their message.
The Ternans do not want to get distracted in their effort to “reimagine the drug talk” between parents and children. “We have to do something different besides demonizing every substance that comes down the track,” Ed said. They’re not focused on “supply-side” tactics, like getting back at drug cartels or punishing dealers. They want to reduce demand, and educate young people about the dangers of fake pills. “Mary and I, and Charlie’s older siblings, decided a long time ago that we definitely are not going down the ‘We are gonna get justice’ path,” Ternan said. “That’s not something that’s healthy for us as a family. It doesn’t help us with our grief.”
On April 25, Matt Capelouto was back in the statehouse, the memory of his daughter powering his latest foray into legislative activism. At 8 in the morning, as he was on his way to another hearing about Alexandra’s Law, he told me he was “not optimistic,” but that he still had hope. “We’ll see,” he said. Hours later, as it became clear the measure would fail once again, for the fourth time, there was a commotion in the gallery. The committee vice chair called for civility and decorum, but the parents were too furious. One parent stood up and stormed out in a fit of rage. It was Matt Capelouto. “You’re making every excuse for drug dealers!” he shouted.
By contrast, Aimee Dunkle said she felt relieved after the bill failed back in March, when she testified in Sacramento. “I played a tiny role in that, which meant a great deal to me,” she said.
But she, too, was pained by the whole saga. “As I sat on the Senate floor waiting to testify, I was totally in no-man’s-land,” she told me. “I’m a grieving parent sitting in a room filled with grieving parents, and yet I don’t belong.” She could feel the rage in the room, and she wanted to get out. “From the moment my son died, I determined that I would go a different path with my grief,” Dunkle told me. “I had to try and stay in the light for my family, for my surviving son.”
Capelouto is cognizant of the sharp contrast—and he is wary of seeming angry and bitter. “In order to get the masses on our side, we still have to come across as rational, normal people,” he said, “even though there is nothing normal about us anymore. It’s a tough walk to walk.”
Everything he’s doing sounds tough. He stays up late at night, always working, thinking of maneuvers that could advance Alexandra’s Law. “We’re for sure going to bring it forward again next year,” Capelouto said. But he’s also, in his words, “disgusted” by the politics and politicking that has kept his daughter’s namesake bill from becoming a law. “It’s just very emotional and taxing.”
Yet he won’t let up. Or maybe he can’t. After McDowell, the dealer who sold Alexandra drugs, was sentenced to nine years in prison, Capelouto didn’t stop. If someday some version of Alexandra’s Law manages to pass, would he stop there? Passing this bill has become something bigger for him, even bigger than a law that would affect some 40 million people living in the nation’s biggest state. This has become his life’s mission, an outlet for his pain. When he wakes up in the morning, he knows exactly what his task is, and he will pursue it, relentlessly, as he has for the past four years.
“There is nothing more debilitating than the grief of losing a child,” Capelouto told me. “And on the opposite end of that, there’s nothing more motivating.”
Maybe he’ll never stop. Because the one thing he truly wants, he knows he can’t ever have.