City recognizes local fight against fentanyl 

From left, Matt Markley, Jaime Puerta and Cary Quashen received a recognition at City Hall for National Fentanyl Awareness and Prevention Day. Courtesy Photo

The parents who stood on the dais at City Hall had all seen firsthand how narcotics, particularly fentanyl, have impacted families and ruined lives in Santa Clarita. 

“What you need to know, especially the young people here, is that you matter,” Matt Markley, a local parent, said at the beginning of the Santa Clarita City Council meeting last week. 

Markley was there with a pair of local experts in the battle against substance abuse and addiction — Jaime Puerta of Victims of Illicit Drugs, and Cary Quashen of Action Drug Rehab — as part of the city’s second annual recognition of National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day. 

“Your life is precious. You don’t deserve this. And you need to give yourself grace and patience and self-love before you resort to trusting people you shouldn’t be trusting,” Markley continued, in front of a crowd ranging from a youth soccer club to a group speaking on local developments. 

“Your life is worth so much more than that.” 

Markley said he was up there because he was part of a group that learned the hard way. 

In a follow-up phone conversation Wednesday, he wanted to be clear that what happened to his child, Jax Markley, wasn’t for a lack of love and understanding.  

But having been through so much in the last year, in terms of soul-searching as well as research into the problem, he really wanted to further the understanding of how widespread the issue is, as well as how much more accessible resources need to be to cut down on these types of tragedies. 

He described his approach to the issue as a pragmatic one that tries as much as possible to distance itself from getting caught up in the oft-polarizing conversations of a political nature on the discussion, which largely come from those favoring harm-reduction vs. those favoring incarceration. 

Markley didn’t attack either approach but really wanted to focus his efforts on making more reliable data more consistently available for community members. That was one of the first challenges he had when he tried to understand what happened to his youngest child. 

Jax Markley was less than six months past the class of 2022 Valencia High School graduation ceremony when Jax was found not breathing in their home on Heirloom Place on Nov. 6 around 9 a.m. 

Matt Markley recalled sharing words of love and adulation with his child during their last conversation. 

Jax Markley didn’t have an easy path on the way blossoming into a caring, understanding and interesting person, Matt said in a phone interview this week. 

“They dealt with a lot of mental baggage, a lot of depression and anxiety such as a lot of kids do especially coming out of the COVID period and you know, if there’s one thing I would like people to know about Jaxy — for all the complications, just that at their core, they were just about the most empathetic and kind person you would ever want to know,” Markley said.  

Matt added that Jax began to deal with gender dysphoria around age 10 or 11, which was challenging for Jax despite having access to therapists, psychiatrists and medication as well as having a safe space at home. 

“This is also an important thing about Jax because for all the emotional suffering they went through in their process, we had all the support you could ask for,” he said, adding his wife, Jax’s mother, is also a doctor and the most empathetic partner he could ask for. 

Despite time that’s passed, developing an understanding of how the tragedy could happen is still difficult. 

“We knew the risks involved given Jax’s variables,” Matt said.  

“We also, having raised Jax … we recognized we had to give them trust and space, and somewhere within that trust and space, the unspeakable somehow managed to happen,” he said.  

Now Matt Markley is trying to help others get more information, before something tragic happens, and wants to make sure those who need help know how to get the resources they need. 

Puerta, who was contacted by the city as part of his work with VOID, said Monday that after his son Daniel died from a fentanyl poisoning in April 2020, he couldn’t believe the federal government wasn’t already warning families about the pending crisis. 

Currently the latest official federal data on fentanyl overdoses is approximately two years old, which is one of the challenges Markley noted. However, the national numbers don’t appear to indicate the problem is slowing down.  

“Overall, drug overdose deaths rose from 2019 to 2021 with more than 106,000 drug overdose deaths reported in 2021,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. 

In Santa Clarita, there were 31 deaths attributed to fentanyl poisonings in 2022, according to data from city officials, who have been following the issue in response to community concern. 

There have been five confirmed local deaths attributed to fentanyl poisoning in 2023 so far, according to the city, but that doesn’t include deaths that are awaiting toxicology reports that can take anywhere from four to six months for the results. (The latest confirmed incident was in May, with the city averaging one death per month for the first five months. The city did not have the exact figure for how many suspected deaths were under investigation for fentanyl as of this story’s publication.) 

Puerta has been sounding the alarm since 2020, working with a filmmaker to produce “Dead on Arrival,” which shares the story of four families who have been impacted by fentanyl. He now tours the country showing the film to audiences ranging in age from school children to soldiers at Camp Pendleton and everyone in between, particularly families, who will listen. 

“Most parents feel like this cannot happen to their family members or cannot happen to their children because they have nobody in their family who’s either using drugs on a recreational basis or are addicted to drugs,” Puerta said, “but what they fail to understand is that children will be children, children are going to want to experiment with drugs or if they’re not in that experimentation stage, they’re going to self-medicate, either due to a real or perceived emotional trauma or physical trauma, so they self-medicate.” 

Matt Markley said Jax was trying to get over an ex-boyfriend after breaking up over the boyfriend’s drug use, Matt said. Matt said Jax died from fentanyl poisoning after buying what was supposedly Xanax from a source on Instagram. 

Puerta said Monday he’s in talks with the Los Angeles Unified School District seeking to get more involved in its drug-education curriculum, ahead of a planned trip to a military base in Wichita later in the week, when he’ll also look to share information about the dangers of the drug. 

Quashen, a local addiction expert who was at City Hall last week for the recognition as the founder and operator of the area’s most well-known treatment center, Action Drug Rehab, called the dangers from fentanyl the most serious threat he’s seen in decades of working with those in recovery. 

“We’ve finally got it where everyone’s talking about this right now and the more information, we get out there, the more lives we can touch, the more lives we can save, and let’s remember — knowledge is power,” Quashen said last week ahead of the City Council recognition. “But I’ll tell you, we have to do something, because we’re losing more people right now to overdose deaths, accidental overdose deaths, than ever before in history.” 

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