SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A group of California mothers gathered at the Capitol Thursday to make an emotional request of Governor Gavin Newsom: step up and do more for drug addiction and mental health.
Their group, Mothers Against Drug Deaths, is comprised mostly of moms whose children are in addiction or whose kids have overdosed and died.
“California definitely needs to improve its mental health and addiction services,” Jacqui Berlinn said.
She knows this all too well. Her 30-year-old son got addicted to heroin 10 years ago. She said he has had periods of sobriety, but there’s been a change recently.
“A couple years ago, the dealer started putting fentanyl into the heroin, and – unbeknownst to him – he got addicted to fentanyl,” Berlinn said. “I’ve seen him deteriorate more in two years on fentanyl than he ever did on heroin.”
As the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency explains, "Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine...Fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency, or be disguised as highly potent heroin. Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl – which often results in overdose deaths."
The most recent state data shows nearly 4,000 people died of a fentanyl overdose in 2020. That’s more than 70% of all California opioid deaths that year.
That’s why Mothers Against Drug Deaths has started an awareness campaign using a billboard showing a tent city with a sign that says, “Camp Fentanyl: Open to Kids Everywhere,” asking Governor Newsom “shut down open air drug markets now.” Drivers can see the new billboard along the I-80 Business Loop/Capital City Freeway near Harbor Boulevard in West Sacramento.
Berlinn said her son told her that in the last six months, he has started seeing more and more teenagers coming to the open air drug markets he frequents in San Francisco.
Open air drug markets, the moms explained, are spaces in big cities like San Francisco where drug dealers can openly sell drugs – even in plain sight of law enforcement.
“It’s incredibly frustrating. It’s a life-and-death situation, and I feel like I’m screaming into the wind and that people aren’t listening,” Berlinn said. “I see my son struggling to get well. I see many other people on the street struggling to get well, and California just does not have the mental health and addiction services that it needs to help people get well.”
She said San Francisco’s lack of enforcement of laws that would prosecute drug dealers ultimately enable people like her son to stay addicted.
“Enabling someone is basically just letting them slowly kill themselves,” she said.
Another mom, Gina McDonald, said that enabling – in some cases – is very literal.
“We’re talking about foil being handed out on the streets. Straws being handed out on the streets. Pipes being handed out on the streets. We agree with the clean needles and NARCAN®,” or its generic name naloxone, a fast-acting overdose-reversing medication. “I understand safe use, but at what point are we saying, ‘This is okay.’ At what point do we not say, ‘We’re here to help you – not enable you.’”
She said it’s easier to get drugs than get treatment, and she knows firsthand the importance of getting help.
“I’m a recovering addict,” McDonald shared. “I was mandated treatment. I was picked up by the Alameda County Sheriff, and they offered me treatment or jail. Thank God they nudged me toward treatment, right? And there’s no reason we can’t be doing this. We’ve been talking about this for years now – about building shelters, about building treatment facilities. Why is it taking so long? Why? People are dying. I don’t understand.”
Group co-founder Ellen Grantz, who has lost cousins to drug overdoses and wants to protect her two teenagers from getting into drugs, said Mothers Against Drug Deaths wants Newsom to take a statewide approach instead of leaving addiction services up to individual counties.
“It does need to come from the top because it’s too hard to manage in a piece-wise fashion,” Grantz said. “You can see people from Humboldt coming to San Francisco, buying the drugs and going back to Humboldt, and that’s where people are overdosing and dying as a consequence.”
She said it’s happening in cities across the state—including the Sacramento area.
“Mothers Against Drug Deaths is hoping to prevent this from happening to more families,” Berlinn said. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I would love for Newsom to start an awareness campaign around this and to start to tell the state that we need to enforce the laws that are in place."