Drug overdose deaths top 100,000 annually for the first time, driven by fentanyl, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Provisional data shows drug overdose deaths rose by 28.5% over a 12-month period ending in April 2021.
Former Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, actor Michael K. Williams, musicians Prince and Tom Petty, among the famous lives lost to the powerful and deadly synthetic drug, Fentanyl.
While celebrities make headlines, across Southern California similar tragedies are unfolding - sons and daughters - deaths rising at an alarming rate.
"I walked into his bedroom to give him his medication and I found him dead," Jaime Puerta said after losing his teenage son, Daniel, in April 2020.
"It was just horrible. No parent should see something like that," Puerta said. "My son thought he was consuming a blue m-30 Oxycodone pill, but it turned out to be a counterfeit with enough fentanyl to kill anywhere between four to seven people and that took his life."
The NBC4 I-Team analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and found since 2019 the number of overdose deaths caused by synthetic drugs in California is dramatically higher than cocaine and heroin.
Nearly two thirds of annual overdose deaths now connected to synthetic opioids, according to the CDC.
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The Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles tells the NBC4 ITeam that Fentanyl is responsible for nearly 50-percent of drug deaths in Los Angeles County and up to 64-percent in Orange County last year alone.
With the recent crackdown on doctors and companies for flooding the market with pain pills, the NBC4 ITeam found people are increasingly turning to the online black market, where they're unwittingly buying dangerous fake drugs.
"Every community is an open-air drug market", William "Bill" Bodner, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Office in Los Angeles.
Bodner oversees DEA operations for Southern California and says most of the fentanyl his agency is seeing comes from China, and the pills are then produced and trafficked by Mexican cartels.
"One hundred percent of the pills that you buy on the street or you get through social media are counterfeit pills," he said.
Bodner says dealers and buyers use emojis often used on smartphones and cell phones to negotiate buys of the counterfeit product.
The agency has created an emoji decoder which shows a snowflake represents what's supposed to be Oxycodone: a school bus stands for Xanax, and a product billed as "high potency" shows a rocket ship. Bodner wants parents to recognize the language.
"We also have to pursue those dealers that are selling drugs that are resulting in deaths," Bodner said.
This strategy represents a huge shift in the fight against fentanyl and other illicit drugs.
A new federal law allows agents to charge a dealer if a customer dies after a buy of drugs. The dealer could face a 20 year minimum prison sentence if convicted.
Last month, a former communications director for the Los Angeles Angels was convicted of distributing an opioid with fentanyl to pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs died in 2019. Eric Kay will be sentenced in June.
"There are too many people dying in Southern California." Puerta said.
Puerta is the president of Victims of Illicit Drugs. He says counterfeit pills, like the one his son took, look like legit medication, yet they are mixed with highly addictive Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids and sold on the black market. The pills offered on social media apps and websites; they are easy to find and buy.
"It's Russian roulette. i mean you're you're just you're playing with fire," "Lee" who asked us to conceal his real name and identity said.
"Lee" says he used to make and sell bogus pills - pressing thousands in an hour.
"There's a lot of different apps, now that are text messaging apps; you make a fake email you know and you can be completely anonymous," he said.
He tells us he used crypto currency to hide transactions, and then one day he overdosed on his own product.
"I am thankful I am not dead," he said.
"Lee" says he's now 5 months sober after going through rehab at Action Family Counseling in Santa Clarita.
It's where Cary Quashen, who runs the center, sees people high on fentanyl every day.
"It's the most deadly thing out there right now," he said.