By Jondi Gumz

For parents, it’s a tragedy they never expected.

A young man employed at a grocery had a terrible case of hives and couldn’t sleep. He took a Benadryl and part of a Xanax pill and never woke up. He was dead at age 29. His Xanax, a sedative prescribed for anxiety, was counterfeit – actually deadly fentanyl.

A mom came home to find her son, who loved playing guitar, unresponsive. He was dead at age 20. He had ordered Percocet, an opioid pain reliever; delivered to his door, it was laced with deadly fentanyl.

A young man, a passionate skateboarder, took half a Xanax to help with anxiety. He was dead at age 26. His Xanax, purchased from a dealer, looked like a pill sold at a pharmacy but it contained enough fentanyl to kill him.

All of these young people lived in Santa Cruz County, mourned by loved ones.

The numbers are heart-breaking.

Suki Wessling of Growing Up in Santa Cruz reported that since January 2020, fentanyl has taken the lives of 10 young people in their 20s and four teens.

A map of fentanyl overdoses since January 2020 created by Santa Cruz County Coroner Stephany Fiore shows a countywide problem, with clusters in Aptos, Watsonville, Pleasure Point and Santa Cruz plus single incidents in Ben Lomond and Lompico.

“It’s Russian roulette right now,” Fiore said.

Rita Hewitt, parent and program coordinator at the Health Improvement Partnership of Santa Cruz County, hosted a “town hall” on the crisis April 25 via Zoom. For a recording, see

Ten officials in health care, law enforcement and education attempted to answer some 74 questions – the biggest puzzle being why would drug dealers kill their customers?

Santa Cruz Police Lt. Carter Jones explained, “A pound of fentanyl can be cut… and make a lot of profit. Nobody’s thinking about client health. “

Insufficient Evidence

Despite the record-setting fentanyl deaths, Johanna Schonfield, Santa Cruz County assistant district attorney, said she hasn’t seen a case with sufficient evidence to file homicide charges. Her office is working to educate law enforcement on what is needed.

Fentanyl poisonings are so frequent that officers carry Narcan, naloxone nasal spray antidote.

“We had an overdose death two nights ago,” he said. “We’re seeing things every day that test positive for fentanyl.”

Fentanyl is made in a lab – no need to grow crops – and is 50 times more powerful than heroin, so a tiny amount can kill.

“For every pill, there is a counterfeit,” Hewitt said. “Please assume most pills from the street are tainted with fentanyl … Drugs can be dropped off, it’s almost as easy as ordering a pizza.”

Fentanyl slows breathing. The brain stops signaling the body to breathe, and the person can’t be woken up.

The antidote has to be given right away, one nostril, then the other, and as many as four doses may be needed.


If someone is having trouble breathing, call 911 and do CPR until paramedics arrive.

Too often, the individual taking the tainted pill is alone.

“Paramedics aren’t called and you have a grieving family,” said Dr. Alex Threlfall, Santa Cruz County chief of the psychiatrist.

“Always consider the buddy system,” said Dr. David Ghilarducci, Santa Cruz County deputy public health officer. “Unfortunately Narcan does not work when you’re by yourself.”

Santa Cruz Community Health, with clinics in Santa Cruz and Ben Lomond, is providing Narcan to teens, according to Kristen O’Connor, a certified addiction registered nurse.

She said Dominican Hospital offers treatment in its emergency room.

It’s OK for minors to have Narcan, said Jennifer Buesing, director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

She is training school staff on how dangerous fentanyl is, the school nurse, administrators and teachers.

Those in the know are asking questions.

“My son asked me if he should have Narcan in his car when he’s going to a party,” Threlfall said.

Foods For Anxiety

As for getting to the root of why young people turn to drugs to ease pain and anxiety, O’Connor said her clinic is trying to ask about it “and learn how to offer counseling to get to these underlying causes.”

Asked if new research, such as “This is Your Brain on Food,” by Dr. Uma Naidoo, Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, could be shared, Dr. Jen Hastings of SafeRx Santa Cruz County said, “Yes… anything we can do to promote healthy living will go a long way.”

The Health Improvement Partnership is working with Empower Watsonville, a youth group, devoted to positive change and is expecting state funds for outreach to schools.

The multi-state settlement with opioid-makers means $ 2.05 billion for California to address the opioid epidemic, but Anthony Jordan, Santa Cruz County chief of substance abuse disorder services, is not sure how much Santa Cruz County will get because of Senate Bill 1282. That bill, proposed by Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), would allocate 60% of the money for addiction services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

That bill is opposed by the California Association of Counties and the League of California Cities.


Parents seeking support are welcome to email [email protected]

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