Ed Ternan had hardly heard of fentanyl when his son overdosed on the lethal opioid in May 2020. Now he’s the president and co-founder of a California non-profit dedicated to spreading awareness about the dangers of fentanyl to teens and young adults throughout the nation. The name of the non-profit, which Ternan co-founded with his wife Mary, bears their son’s name — Song for Charlie.
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin and is often laced in other, less dangerous street drugs like painkillers, which teens buy online illicitly. It was behind 588 deaths last year of California youths aged 15-24.
Ed Ternan discussed what happened to 22-year-old Charlie, and the work his organization is doing now to prevent more fentanyl youth deaths.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your son, Charlie?
A: Yeah, Charlie was our youngest of three…. He attracted a lot of people to him. He had tons of friends, and would connect friends with each other. And yeah, so he was a really good soul.
Q: Can you walk me through what happened in the lead up to when he passed away?
A: Charlie died on May 14th, 2020. So it was in the first couple of months of the pandemic…He was living with us for a couple of months…. He was doing fine. And then about a month before he was due to graduate, he and some friends decided to return to Santa Clara (University). He lived off campus as a senior, so he returned to his fraternity house… And that’s when after being there about a week, Charlie decided… that he would play some video games and wait for a five o’clock job interview that afternoon. And so when most of the house left (to go out), he asked around… if anybody had any Xanax, because he was going to just take a Xanax and chill out and play video games… Somebody came forward and said that they knew a plug (dealer) on Snapchat. And they connected with this person, and they bought a number of Xanax bars and a Percocet. Now Charlie was familiar with Percocet because of a back surgery he had… The last time anybody talked to him was about 3:15 (p.m.) And he never made the five o’clock phone call for the job interview… We know he took one pill, and it turned out to be a counterfeit made of fentanyl.
Q: And so from there, did you pretty quickly get a call from one of his fraternity brothers? Or how did you hear?
A: It was horrible. We got a knock on the door about 10 o’clock that night from some dear friends and our pastor… After a sleepless night, the next morning we got a call from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputy. And he said – we’ll wait for the tox (toxicology) report. But I’m going to tell you now this is fentanyl. And there have been seven deaths from these M30s (fentanyl laced pills) in the last 10 days here in Santa Clara County. And we strongly suspect that Charlie is going to be number eight.
Q: At that point in time did you know much about fentanyl?
A: It’s not like I never heard (of) it, but I certainly did not think about it in the context of street drugs.
Q: So when did you decide to found the nonprofit Song for Charlie? What was the early goal and where did you focus your efforts in those early days?
A: We formally established Song for Charlie in December of 2020. That was just six or seven months after Charlie passed… We connected with other families and found that it was happening across the country… And we basically said we want to warn you all and everyone else, that these counterfeit pills are out there… We partnered with the social media companies to put out awareness campaigns very quickly.
Q: So how did the conversations go with the tech companies?
A: We started by reaching out to the people at Snap. That’s where Charlie and his friend connected with the dealer. And we got in touch with the executives there and we were able to convince them to work with us. Remember… in 2020 and early 2021, it was not widely known that fentanyl had moved from the heroin supply into these counterfeit pills…. we started working with some executives at Google. We were introduced to people at Meta. Of course, Google people introduced us to the YouTube team. The YouTube folks introduced us to people at TikTok. So by mid 2021, we had formal working relationships with all the major social media platforms and Google/YouTube.
Q: Can you talk about some of the some concrete examples of ways that they’ve really helped your organization
A: Ad credits. So advertisers will buy space on TikTok or YouTube or Snapchat. But these companies also donate the ad space to certain nonprofits and philanthropy groups. So we’ve gotten, you know, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars of ad credits from these platforms.
Q: I’ve spoken to parents who are involved in lawsuits against Snapchat… They’re really upset just about how the spread of some of these pills is facilitated through some of these social media platforms. What’s your take on that?
A: Well, it is certainly a problem. And it is a problem for Snap, and Meta, and TikTok. So then the question is: Do they know it’s a problem and are they working to solve the problem? And my experience is that, yes, they are … taking it very seriously. And in the last couple of years, they’ve made dramatic improvements in how they find and take down drug content and share information with law enforcement… So what we need to do, and what’s happening behind the scenes, is these companies are working together at a certain level to share signals. Because one thing that’ll happen is a dealer will promote his or her menu on say Instagram where the post will stay up, and then they’ll jump over to Snapchat, where the content disappears, to arrange the meet up.
Q: There’s many local and state politicians who think that we should increase penalties on drug dealers, particularly fentanyl dealers, and particularly those who have a larger supply of fentanyl. What’s your thoughts on the current debate?
How can LA combat its fentanyl crisis? MacArthur Park offers clues
‘Outrageous and inexcusable’: 3-month-old infant and two San Jose teenagers dead from fentanyl poisoning in one month
Oakland money service business operators charged with laundering thousands, as feds signal their intent to target drug traffickers’ proceeds
‘Madman’ fentanyl dealer that targeted South Bay high school students will get 12 years in prison
FBI-led task force targeting major Bay Area fentanyl operation underway
A: At Song for Charlie, we don’t take positions publicly on these legislative issues because it’s just not our lane. We really focus on education and awareness. (But) I personally have opinions… These chemicals are extremely potent, which makes them way more profitable for the manufacturers who make them illicitly, for traffickers who bring them into the country, and the dealers who sell them locally… My position is compassion for users, consequences for sellers.
Q: What happened to the dealer in your son’s case?
A: I probably shouldn’t give too much detail, but he was a juvenile at the time of the transaction, which put it in a whole different category. He’s now an adult. So any consequences that came his way have now been expunged from his record. He is still walking the streets. He was never charged with anything having to do with homicide. They were able to charge him with drug selling and that’s all.
Q: And so what do you make of that? On a personal level?
A: You know, we gave up on that very early on. My wife, Mary, and I, and Charlie’s two older siblings decided that we cannot put our energy into quote-unquote, “seeking justice.” It was not going to be healthy for us processing our grief and our mental well-being. So we really let that go. We think that was a good decision… Anyone who has gotten a conviction will say it didn’t bring my child back, and I woke up the next morning really not feeling any better… We focus our energies on the awareness and education side to prevent these tragedies.
Q: Have you gotten fulfillment out of that work of educating people and spreading awareness?
A: We have. We are making great strides… We are getting the message out very successfully… And our approach has been validated by the fact that the California Department of Health Care Services reached out to us in December, and asked us to help them. And so in August, we’re launching a program now to help educate parents… So some coaching tips on how to bring it (fentanyl) up… how to keep the dialogue going. And then what to do… where you can get Naloxone (a medication which reverses the effects of a fentanyl overdose) or where you can send your kid in California if you’re concerned that there’s mental health issues and maybe some substance issue.
For additional resources, see here.
Title: President and co-founder of Song for Charlie
Education: MBA at Pepperdine University, Undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University.
Family: Wife, Mary, who is the other co-founder of Song for Charlie. They have two children, who are 32 and 29. Charlie would have been 25 this year.
Five fast facts about Ed Ternan
Student of Stoic philosophy
Music lover, especially piano rock
Homebody; unhappy traveler
Married into a large legacy family at Santa Clara University