LAFAYETTE, L.a. — Gabrielle Konow. Hunter Clemons. Lyric Verrett.
Those are the names of just a few of the many lives lost right here in Acadiana due to fentanyl poisoning.
According to the CDC, fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. While it can be prescribed to doctors for extreme pain, it is more and more commonly found illegally produced and laced into other drugs for its potency. Officials say this makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous.
On the homefront, 2022 data from the Lafayette Parish Coroner's Office shows overdoses in Lafayette Parish alone have climbed 328 percent since 2017. Of 137 deaths back in 2021, the coroner says 73 percent came back positive for fentanyl. That same year, data shows there were 137 overdoses, 101 of them tracing back to the substance. More recently, records show a total of 82 overdose deaths from fentanyl from January to May 2022.
Fentanyl claimed the life of 24-year-old Gabrielle in 2021 when her mother, Denise Konow, says she was fresh out of rehab and thought she was taking a pain pill. While not connected, both Hunter and Lyric's deaths came the following year, in 2022. That's when 22-year-old Hunter's mom Christy says he died after taking what he thought was an ecstasy pill on February 10. Half the pill was found to be laced with the killer drug. As for Lyric, she was enjoying early success in her local tattoo career when she took what she thought was a Xanax tablet. The counterfeit medication killed her at just 21.
"When somebody finds out you've lost a child, they feel real compassionate, you know, and then they find out how, and then you can just almost immediately see the change," Hunter's mom, Christy Couvillier told KATC. "I mean Hunter was, that morning, getting ready and going to his full-time job, he was a great kid, he fished; Gabby was hilarious and was so full of life and potential; I knew Lyric personally and she had so much coming for her and her tattoo career, I mean these kids are our future."
The coroner's data also backs the CDC's claim on counterfeit drugs, stating that 4 out of every 10 counterfeit pills contain a deadly dose of fentanyl. For perspective, doctors say it only takes about three grains of salt worth of fentanyl to be fatal.
That's where the bill pre-filed Monday by Rep. John Stefanski (R, Crowley) comes into play. You can read it in full here.
According to current state law, someone caught manufacturing or distributing less than 28 grams of fentanyl could face five to 40 years in prison with a $50,000 fine. Stefanski, who is also running for Attorney General, says his bill would raise the criminal penalties of fentanyl distribution of more than 28 grams to life in prison at hard labor with no possibility or benefit of probation, parole, or suspension. In other words, equivalent to first-degree murder.
"Put yourself in a drug dealer's perspective," Stefanski said during a Zoom interview Friday. "If they could sell a drug at maximum risk, 10 years, versus life in prison, I don't think they're gonna take the risk."
For less than 28 grams, he says the current law of five to 40 years would remain in effect.
"Two milligrams of fentanyl can kill you, we're talking about 28 grams, which gets you to this highest penalty where you could potentially serve the rest of your life in jail," Stefanski told KATC.
This is a measure the mothers of Gabrielle, Hunter, and Lyric said they, and unfortunately many others in their position, have been hoping for. Since the deaths of their children, they've used their grief as fuel for advocacy and education through the local chapter of the group Millie Mattered.
"It's amazing like that's what needs to be done, they need to be charged with murder if they sell fentanyl to people," Casey Leleux, Lyric's mother said. "I mean, it is a weapon of mass destruction and it needs to be gone."
"I think as parents we always, you know, want the most, the worst thing to happen to the people that killed our children," Konow said. "We're kind of biased to it, of course, but like Casey said, it's a weapon of mass destruction and it's everywhere.
Stefanski says his goal is to have the bill on Governor Edwards' desk by the end of May.
To see the full interview with the mothers, click here.
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