Bonded through tragedy, two Skagit County mothers are trying to bring awareness to a growing epidemic that claimed the lives of their sons.
"We've been handed a cause in life that we never wanted," said Lori Carpenter, whose 18-year-old son, Garrett Arendse, died in April 2018 of fentanyl toxicity.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
While the drug does serve a medical purpose, the illicit use of it has led to counterfeit drugs sold as pain pills like Percocet or laced into other illegal drugs like heroin.
Sometimes, a single fentanyl-laced pill can be deadly.
"Parents are losing their children, and they don't know anything about fentanyl," said Carol Schweigert, whose 27-year-old son, Ronald "Trey" Schweigert, died in May 2018, also from fentanyl toxicity.
"People don't know. There's not enough public awareness."
In an effort to change that, Carpenter and Schweigert participated in a rally on Aug. 27 in Washington, D.C., in hopes of getting the attention of U.S. lawmakers.
"I don't want anyone else to go through what we went through," Schweigert said. "We've got to start saving lives."
At the rally, poster boards with the photos of thousands of victims of fentanyl toxicity from around the country were displayed, along with a casket covered in an American flag.
"It was sobering," Carpenter said. "Each face had a smile. Everybody with this cause wants to do something."
A rising toll
At least 33 Skagit County residents have died from illicit fentanyl toxicity since 2017, according to Skagit County Coroner Hayley Thompson.
That number rose from one case in 2017 to 10 in 2020. With about one-third of 2021 remaining on the calendar, there are already 10 more dead, all presumed to be connected to fentanyl, Thompson said.
In 2019 alone, the CDC estimates more than 36,000 people nationwide died from synthetic opioids like fentanyl — 73% of all opioid-related deaths that year.
"The current fentanyl crisis continues to expand in size and scope across the United States," the CDC reports.
According to The Associated Press, more than 93,000 people nationwide died from drug overdoses in 2020, with more than 60% being fentanyl-related.
Comparatively in 2020, there were about 5,000 motorcycle deaths nationally, 20,000 by gun violence and 2,200 by alcohol poisoning (though the CDC says alcohol is a contributing factor in 95,000 deaths per year).
Fentanyl can affect not just those who suffer from substance abuse disorders, but also people who, like Carpenter and Schweigert's sons, were not addicted and may have only taken one pill.
"These people dying are not addicts," Carpenter said.
Especially dangerous about fentanyl is that it is appearing in street drugs without people realizing it.
"You just never know what that pill contains, in terms of quantity of fentanyl," said Skagit County Sheriff's Office Chief Criminal Deputy Tobin Meyer, who oversees the county's drug task force unit. "It just takes such a small amount to overdose and kill someone that it's literally a game of Russian roulette."
The epidemic is killing people of all ages, genders and ethnicity, including those with and without addictions, Meyer said.
"It knows no bounds," he said.
Chasing the source
Meyer has previously told the Skagit Valley Herald that data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency shows that more than one in four counterfeit pills nationwide contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.
In fact, most of the illicit drugs now coming into Skagit County likely contain some amount of fentanyl, he said previously.
"It could just take one pill," he said recently. "The first pill."
While Meyer and Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich have said their offices are each taking the distribution of fentanyl in the county seriously — tracking down and charging those who are selling the counterfeit drugs — Schweigert and Carpenter went to the August rally with their sights set higher.
The women want lawmakers to take action to prevent the supply of illicit fentanyl coming into the country and for nationwide public awareness campaigns for illicit fentanyl.
"These are not accidental overdoses; these are fentanyl poisonings," Schweigert said.
The rally, hosted by the Fentanyl Awareness Coalition, took place outside the Chinese embassy to protest that country's involvement in sending illicit fentanyl into the U.S. either in pure form or from its compounds, which are then sent to Mexico and made into fentanyl by large-scale Mexican drug cartels before being brought into the U.S.
"It's about making money," Carpenter said. "It's a business."
According to a January 2020 report by the DEA, China and Mexico are the primary sources of fentanyl and fentanyl-related products coming into the U.S.
However, with China recently enacting new laws in an effort to stem the amount of the drug coming out of that country, India is also emerging as a pathway for illicit fentanyl to enter the U.S., the report states.
Increasingly, cartels in Mexico are cutting Chinese suppliers out of the picture in favor of making their own precursor compounds or getting them elsewhere, Meyer said.
"I think what that means is likely an uptick in fentanyl production into the United States," he said.
Making a difference
To raise awareness, Carpenter said she would like to see something similar to the messaging around the current COVID-19 pandemic, where, within weeks, the majority of people were at least aware of the coronavirus and basic ways to protect themselves, such as washing their hands.
"Nobody's talking about this other problem," Schweigert said.
Both women wish they had been warned about the dangers of fentanyl and its presence here before their sons died. If they had known, they would have had conversations with them about its dangers.
"At this point, (fentanyl) should be a discussion in every American home," Schweigert said. "Illicit fentanyl is nothing but death and destruction."
Both women also said they would like to see messaging about the dangers of counterfeit drugs and illicit fentanyl included in school curriculum.
Schweigert said she has spoken with state representatives and has begun a conversation with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to see if education can happen at the K-12 level.
Carpenter, a nurse who now works with people struggling with substance abuse disorders, is hoping to be invited to local schools to talk about her son and the dangers of illicit fentanyl.
Separately, the men who sold each of their sons the drugs that killed them were charged in Skagit County Superior Court with controlled substance homicide. Each pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to time in prison.
While they didn't know each other before, Schweigert and Carpenter — and thousands of parents like them — are now standing up to take things into their own hands.
"I feel like I'm getting stronger and stronger with my voice," Schweigert said.
They're hopeful change will come, even if it has to be one small step at a time.
"It happens to people every single day," Carpenter said. "If I can own this and move forward with it, another parent doesn't have to."