Santa Clarita experts, victims of opioid epidemic speak out

Jaime Puerta kneels next to the display he set up on his lawn in Santa Clarita on Saturday for his son Daniel J. Puerta-Johnson who died of fentanyl poisoning in April 2020, 082920 Dan Watson/The Signal

Santa Clarita Valley experts and family of victims of the opioid epidemic are saying historical patterns of abuse are repeating themselves. 

Cary Quashen, the founder of Action Drug Rehabs and a nationally recognized expert in the field of addiction and drug abuse, said Saturday the problem of substance reliance has only been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. 

Fentanyl cut with drugs, such as heroin and other opioids, has become an issue in Santa Clarita Valley during recent weeks as it has in past years. While the SCV Sheriff’s Station cannot give an exact number to the number of overdoses they’ve encountered in the last few weeks, Shirley Miller, a spokeswoman for the station, said the number of cases has increased. 

“It’s Russian Roulette,” said Quashen. “If it’s cut a little bit too much or they use a little bit too much, they’re dead.” 

In 2017, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital officials stood alongside SCV Sheriff’s Station officials while introducing the public to Narcan, a drug that on-duty deputies would use to prevent a fatality if they arrive on the  scene during an active overdose. 

Currently, under federal law, narcotics, such as marijuana and peyote, are considered Schedule I drugs, while fentanyl is considered a Schedule II. The Drug Enforcement Agency says on its website that the schedules are determined by the drug’s “acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.” 

This type of thinking, Jaime Puerta said, led to him finding his son on the floor, blue around the lips, in his room on the morning of March 30. On April 6, Daniel Joseph-Johnson, at the age of 16, was pronounced dead from a suspected fentanyl overdose. 

According to his father, his son was not a drug or alcohol abuser. However, the night before his father found him on the floor unconscious, his son had gone out to buy a codeine pill from a drug dealer, which unbeknownst to Joseph-Joohnson, had been cut with a lethal dose of fentanyl.

Jaime Puerta set up the display on his lawn in Santa Clarita on Saturday for his son, Daniel J. Puerta-Johnson who died of fentanyl poisoning in April 2020, 082920 Dan Watson/The Signal

“I want people to understand that people are dying because they are being poisoned by fentanyl,” said Puerta. “He was my only son, my only son. I’ll never see him graduate from high school, I’ll never see him go off to college, I’ll never see him walk down the aisle to get married, I’ll never see my grandchildren. … I will never be able to see the beautiful human being that he would have turned out to be, because that kid had a heart of gold.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Puerta tearfully added. 

Only taking half of the pill, which had a “30 milligram” mark on the back, along with an imprinted “M” — giving it the appearance of legitimate-grade pharmaceutical drugs — was enough to kill Joseph-Johnson, as fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

Between 2014 and 2015, the Ohio Drug Submission Testing program saw a 196% increase in illicitly manufactured fentanyl use, and this discovery led the CDC to determine that illegally manufactured fentanyl is “the main driver of the recent increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone.” 

“A lot of the times, I hear the addict say, ‘Well my dealer wouldn’t sell that,’” said Quashen. “Sometimes, even the dealer doesn’t even know what it’s cut with because they just get it from their source.” 

Quashen said the first step to solving this problem is realizing we’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and that the COVID-19 pandemic is not helping things. 

“You have got to watch what is going on with anxiety levels as high as they are right now,” said Quashen. “People are freaking out and getting into serious bad habits that can become life-threatening.”

Quashen said the next step to helping end the recurrence of overdoses in Santa Clarita is to teach children about the dangers of drug use early on. 

“We have two different types of addicts … they started smoking cigarettes and then they started smoking weed and then they started with other drugs,” said Quashen. “But we’re treating another kind of attitude, too, which I call an accidental addict. Meaning, they had back surgery, they went to the hospital, before they were discharged they were on IVs … and they left the hospital with a bottle of whatever pills.

Jaime Puerta stands next to the display he set up on his lawn in Santa Clarita on Saturday for his son Daniel J. Puerta-Johnson who died of fentanyl poisoning in April 2020, 082920 Dan Watson/The Signal

“Before you know it, these drugs are great, pain meds are great; you’re in pain, they help you,” he added. “But after a couple weeks, you become physically addicted to these things, and if you’re still in pain, what do you do? You got to find your drugs.” 

Doctors, Quashen said, have become more conscious of the level of opioids they’re prescribing, and using more discretion on when to prescribe them. However, it takes a universal awareness in order to solve this issue, the founder of Action Drug Rehabs said.   

“Nobody is immune to this,” he said. “Any kind of street drugs that you’re using right now has a high probability, especially with the amount of overdoses we have right now, of having fentanyl.” 

Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson

In an effort to prevent what happened to his family from happening to others, Puerta has spearheaded a campaign to change a number of laws and attitudes surrounding fentanyl. 

The father said one of the three points in his campaign is to ensure his son’s drug dealer, and those who supply victims with fentanyl-laced drugs, should face consequences similar to that of a murderer or person charged with manslaughter. 

“One, is that we need to get drug-induced homicide laws in California to hold people accountable for it; two, it’s not only affecting drug addicts, but it’s affecting first-time users and recreation users; and three that the problem is bigger than anybody thinks,” Puerta said. 

In honor to his son and also a demonstration of his commitment to his cause, Puerta has placed an empty chair on his lawn, with a picture of his son’s face stuck to the front of it. Surrounding the empty chair are two signs, with one demanding that “every suspected drug toxicity death warrants a criminal investigation.”  

“The chair and the signage will not come down until my son’s murderer is caught, tried and jailed,” he said. 

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