On an average morning in 2020, Montecito resident Stephanie Forrester woke up and began preparing for the workday. While she usually never checked in on her son, Justin, 20 years old at the time, she decided to crack open his bedroom door to say goodbye until the evening.
Forrester saw her only child lying in a pool of sweat, cold and clammy to the touch, a faint purple hue to his face and lips. Justin was overdosing on fentanyl — the man-made synthetic opioid that has been the primary driver in the increase of overdose deaths across the country.
Justin had shattered his ankle several months prior, and his doctors prescribed him Oxycontin to deal with the immense pain he was having. After several refills of the prescription, Forrester’s son had become addicted to the opioid and began seeking the drug from other illicit sources.
After being in the ICU for two days after this first overdose, Justin was okay — until his second overdose on February 22, 2022.
“I thought he was getting back to his normal self. He had an apartment and was living on his own, and the next day he was gone,” Forrester said. Justin took what he thought was oxycodone, a blue circular pill with “M30” pressed on the front, but that tiny pill was laced with enough fentanyl to take his life.
Illegal manufacturers of fentanyl add a near-microscopic amount of the drug to other pill compounds, then press them to perfectly model a prescription opioid, such as Oxycontin or Norco. These fakes earn the counterfeiters a large profit when sold at the same street price as the real drugs — $20-$30 per pill — because fentanyl is extremely cheap to make.
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“Mexican drug cartels figured out they could counterfeit legal-looking pills with fentanyl,” Sheriff Bill Brown said. “There was no quality control and each pill contained fatal doses and people were dying.”
Opioid overdoses have been ticking upward for the last 30 years and in the County of Santa Barbara, 133 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses last year alone. More than 50 percent of these deaths were caused by fentanyl — the drug that took Justin’s life. A lethal dose can sit on the sharpened tip of a #2 pencil, barely visible to the naked eye.
Brown has been the county’s sheriff for 16 years — he’s now making his bid for a fifth term in the June primary — and announced Project Opioid during his election kickoff. Before organizing the broad-based coalition — composed of governments in Santa Barbara County, medical personnel, rehabilitation specialists, education leaders, and businesses — Brown had talked with Sheriff Dennis Lemma in Seminole County, Florida, who was the first to launch Project Opioid, which eventually spread throughout the state and is now a nationwide campaign.
“We knew we couldn’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Brown, stating he had fewer deputies than before. “We had to do something about the supply and the demand.” The coalition was already ahead of the curve, he added. “We already have robust treatment programs and great resources. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel on this one.”
A key leader of the project is Kristen Flickinger, executive director of Pacific Pride Foundation, an organization that provides services to the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ communities. Pride has long had experience with needle exchanges and intravenous drug use in its battle to keep the spread of HIV at bay. That knowledge extended to the use of Narcan, or naloxone — the life-saving opioid overdose treatment — and now to fentanyl testing. The test strips can warn of fentanyl’s presence in black market drugs, and the strips are provided to community members, whether they themselves are using or someone they know is using drugs.
“[Project Opioid is] doing everything that we can do to collaborate and make this community more livable because we’ve lost so many kids,” Flickinger said.
Justin’s mother, Stephanie Forrester, is a member of Project Opioid. She never thought she would need to learn about Narcan, but she now urges all parents to educate themselves and their children on the dangers of fentanyl. Her hope is that the knowledge and acceptance will spread across the county and that fewer mothers will lose a child to the ongoing opioid crisis.