LOS ANGELES  — As part of a special “Inside the Issues” episode dedicated to the fentanyl crisis, Jaime Puerta, founder of Victims of Illicit Drug Use or VOID, sat down with Alex Cohen to talk about his son Daniel who died in 2020 at 16 years old.

“I was very proud of him and honored to be his father for almost 17 years,” said Puerta. 

Puerta said as a little boy, Daniel loved animals and taking visits to the zoo and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

In speaking about Daniel’s death, Puerta describes a story that unfortunately, more and more parents in the United States are becoming familiar with as fentanyl-related deaths have increased among teens. According to the CDC, monthly drug overdose deaths nearly tripled among 10 to19-year-olds from 2019 through the end of 2021. Fentanyl was involved in 84% of the deaths. 

In California, 224 teens ages 15 to 19 died because of fentanyl related overdoses in 2021. 

Puerta said at the height of the pandemic, Daniel reached out to a drug dealer on Snapchat and bought what he thought was a blue M30 oxycodone pill. The family would later learn that it was laced with fentanyl.

On the night of March 31, 2020, Daniel asked his dad if he could take their dog out for a walk. 

“I found that kind of strange… but I agreed, obviously, and he went and he came back 10 minutes later. We had a wonderful dinner that night,” said Puerta. 

Puerta said the next day, he walked into Daniel’s room and “immediately knew that there was something horrifically and terribly wrong.” He called 9-11. Daniel was transferred to the hospital and Jaime Puerta and Daniel’s mother Denise were eventually told there was nothing doctors could do for their son. 

“On April 5,  2020, Denise and I got together, and we had a long talk and we knew our son would not want to live this way. You know, nurses coming in and, and changing diapers… that’s just not the life that he would want or that we would want. And we knew that the only thing that would be humane to do is stop his suffering and let him go.”

Daniel was taken off life-support the next day.

Puerta said he would want other parents to know that the drugs on the streets today are not the same as they were in the 80s, 90s or even early 2000s. 

“What’s happening is that we have counterfeit pills, cloned pills, pills made to look exactly like Percocets, oxycodone, Oxycontin … Adderall, Vicodin,” he said. “We have these pills that have been cloned by criminal organizations, not only south of the border, but now they’re doing it here in Los Angeles as well, making them pass off as pharmaceutical grade pills, but in all reality, they’re made of fentanyl and binder. And the children don’t know this.”

Puerta’s foundation, Victims of Illicit Drug Use, has a documentary called “Dead on Arrival” that they use in middle and high schools across the country to help educate both children and parents on the dangers of fentanyl and other drugs and to break the stigma of overdose and addiction.

“One of the biggest problems that we have is that most people feel that this could never happen to their family because either they don't have anybody who's using drugs on a recreational level in their family, or even is experimenting with drugs, but children are going to be children.” 

The documentary has been dubbed in Spanish which Puerta, who is Colombian American, says is important because of the stigma in the culture. 

“We have been really opening up doors with the Hispanic community with this breaking the stigma of addiction and overdose and letting parents know, especially in the Hispanic community, that they need to talk to their kids about this.”

To watch the “Dead on Arrival” documentary and find other resources, visit stopthevoid.org. There is also an educators tool kit included on the site, which Puerta says the organization has used at schools across the country. 

“A lot of parents have to put their grief aside, get up from bed and do something about it, because we don’t want any other parent to have to live through what we’re living through right now. So that’s why we do what we do.”

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