Fentanyl addiction is killing my son. But California drug laws enable him instead of helping.

I hope my son gets arrested and is forced to enter drug treatment. But permissive drug laws in California instead make death more and more likely.

Jacqui Berlinn
Opinion contributor
Corey Sylvester and Jacqui Berlinn in November 2018 in Dublin, California.

Fentanyl is killing my son, Corey. There was a time when I wouldn’t admit that. Shame kept me silent. But things have changed. I am desperate now.

For years he suffered addiction to opiates, including heroin. More recently, my adult son has started to use fentanyl. He has deteriorated more in a few months on fentanyl than he ever did in 10 years on heroin. I’m scared I will lose him. He tells me that so many of his street friends have died of overdoses. My son has overdosed numerous times. Narcan saved his life. He says he doesn’t want to die. He says his friends didn’t want to die, either.

Corey has been stabbed twice – once his lung was punctured so badly, he nearly died. Drug dealers sometimes carry machetes. He was assaulted with a machete.

My son gets his drugs in San Francisco. Specifically, in the Tenderloin area. Harm reduction combined with the open-air drug market makes it incredibly easy to remain addicted to drugs. Needles, foil and fentanyl are available. Is it an addicted person's heaven or an addicted person's hell? My son says it’s the latter.

My son is in bondage

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. It’s cheap to manufacture and goes a long way. Drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016 alone. 

Dealers add it to drugs on the street. They added it to my son’s heroin without his knowledge. Now they have chained him to his death if he doesn’t break free.

Some would say that my son needs to have the will to get well, that he needs to choose to take the steps to sobriety. They have no idea just how difficult that is. For many people with drug addictions, it takes only a few hours of sobriety before they get dope sick – a severe, sometimes fatal condition of opiate withdrawal. During that two-hour window, he would have to navigate getting to a program with an open bed. He can’t call because his phone has been stolen. He has no car, nor funds to get to the clinic – if he even knew or remembered where one might be.

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When Corey isn’t sober, he isn’t clear-headed enough to make a choice for his own well-being. He is sick in body and in mind. Asking him to choose sobriety when he is in the stupor of a fentanyl high is like asking an infant to choose not to suckle. My son is in bondage, but there is a way out for him. He just isn’t well enough to see it let alone navigate through it.  

The only way my son will escape his addiction is if he is coerced or mandated to get treatment. My hope is that he will be arrested and offered rehabilitation as an alternative to jail, but laws passed in California make that highly unlikely.

California laws downplay addiction

Passed in 2014, Proposition 47 downgraded drug possession to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. It also cut jail sentences for people who shoplift less than $950

Many big-city district attorneys, including San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, will rarely prosecute drug crimes. Removing these pressures allows open-air drug scenes to flourish while dealers peddle their poisons with near impunity.

Fentanyl syringes

Desperate to do something, in May I chose to protest the drug dealers who were selling to my son – specifically those in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. I had the support of many residents who are frustrated and weary of the crime and daily threats to public health. City police officers specifically thanked me for my efforts to draw attention to the crisis. San Francisco Supervisors Matt Haney and Ahsha Safai were present.

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I know that a single protest won’t bring the change I hope for. I continue to raise my voice, along with others. Last month we protested in Venice Beach. In August we head to Sacramento. I started StopFentanylDeaths.org so others can gather more information and get involved.

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My son is kind and bright and funny. He can recite most of "The Princess Bride" while imitating the characters. He played saxophone and was in his high school marching band. He participated in the swim team and loved to read.

Corey Sylvester and Jacqui Berlinn in January 2021 in San Francisco.

If you saw Corey today, you wouldn’t see that person. You would see a "junkie" or you would try not to see him at all. He tells me most people ignore him or look at him in disgust. It was after high school graduation that he made some bad choices and took a few risks, but having a drug addiction doesn’t mean he deserves to die in the streets. He is sick and needs help. It’s only a matter of time before he takes the one fatal dose that will take him from me forever.

Jacqui Berlinn is the co-founder of Stop Fentanyl Deaths. Berlinn's son knows she speaks up publicly on his behalf, hoping to prompt him to come home and enter a treatment plan toward sobriety.