Livermore mom turns to activism during son's drug battle | June 3, 2022 | Pleasanton Weekly | |
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Pleasanton Weekly

- June 3, 2022

Livermore mom turns to activism during son's drug battle

Mothers Against Drug Deaths seeks to humanize addiction, highlight risks of fentanyl crisis

by Jeanita Lyman

Jacqui Berlinn had been quiet about her son, Corey Sylvester's, battle with drug addiction, until a picture she saw on social media -- and the comments on it -- made her stop short and drove her to break her silence.

"My son's been an addict on the streets with some stints of sobriety for about 10 years now," Berlinn said. "One day I was scrolling on Facebook and came across 'BART Rants and Raves,' and there was someone passed out on BART. And people were making comments about 'what a useless human being' and all that ... and I looked closer at the photo, and I realized it was my son."

Berlinn, a Livermore resident, said that the image, and the insults in the comments that ensued, stuck in her head. She wasn't able to let them go.

"I had to say that's my son, and as soon as I said that it completely changed the tone of the conversation," Berlinn said. "I think just humanizing my son made people start saying 'I'm so sorry' ... they just looked at him differently."

"That was a huge change, just claiming him as a son that I love," Berlinn added.

A mother's perspective

Berlinn said that Sylvester had struggled with anxiety and depression early on, as well as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and processing troubles that made reading in school difficult and led to self-esteem issues.

"He started to self medicate, I think from his mind always spinning and always going," Berlinn said. "He started smoking marijuana in high school, and things just kind of snowballed from there."

Berlinn said that her son, who she continues to have a close relationship with and speaks to regularly, despite his struggles with addiction on the streets of San Francisco, told her about his first experience with hard drugs, when he finally accepted a high school girlfriend's offer at the then-Livermore Honey and Wine Festival.

"When I found out he smoked heroin at the Honey and Wine Fest in Livermore, I was just so surprised that it was in our city," Berlinn said. "I guess I was ignorant at the time and I don't really blame parents about being ignorant, because I was too. But that's why, as a mom, why I feel I need to speak out."

After the Facebook post that first led Berlinn to speak up about her son, she began to do more research and be more outspoken on social media. She ultimately caught the attention of Berkeley activist and author Michael Shellenberger, who interviewed her for his 2021 book "San Fransicko."

When Shellenberger asked if she was interested in activism surrounding drug addiction amid the increasingly dangerous landscape fentanyl paints for users, Berlinn said she had initially been taken aback, never having seen herself as an activist. Ultimately, however, with Shellenberger's encouragement, she made her first foray into the activist arena.

"So I started Stop Fentanyl Deaths, because when we were talking about the book, I said I was upset that dealers were just allowed to sell so openly on the streets of San Francisco without any pressure. So I said I want to go protest and tell them to stop selling to my son," Berlinn said.

Berlinn's early organization rallied in downtown San Francisco last year to call for addressing issues that they saw within the city's Tenderloin Linkage Center. In particular, Berlinn and other activists were concerned about drug use and sales continuing to be allowed in the facility, which they said they had previously been optimistic about.

"We were very excited, but they were allowing drug use and sales in there," Berlinn said. "So we protested against the drug use in the linkage center, not the linkage center, but the drug use in the linkage center."

Berlinn said that counter-protesters arrived at the event, but that they were confused about her group's aims.

These earlier efforts ultimately led Berlinn to find other mothers going through similar circumstances -- and to the founding of Mothers Against Drug Deaths late last year.

"I think mothers are absolutely huge in this because we can humanize our children, and we love our children, and we know them in a way that no one else knows them," Berlinn said. "And I know who my son is. I know he's funny, and kind, and thoughtful and smart."

Berlinn noted that this perspective is not one taken into account in most people's initial reaction to homeless people struggling with addicti the streets.

"I think that mothers can stand up for their children and say you know what, my child is sick and he needs help," Berlinn said.

Media attention

Although more and more attention has been centered on the rise of fentanyl recently, amid a more than 1,000% rise nationwide in overdose deaths from the dangerous drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Berlinn said that her organization's focus is on a more holistic picture of the risk of drugs in the 21st century.

"We're not only talking about fentanyl, but we're against deaths by all drugs. And what I noticed when I started looking into this activity is what San Francisco does, so they go their harm reduction," Berlinn said. "It's ... enabling. They don't talk enough about recovery. They talk a lot about how to keep using and staying alive -- and some of that is good, and I do believe in Narcan and clean needles -- but I don't believe in removing all pressures on addicts and dealers."

Berlinn said her stance came from personal experience, and that MADD's efforts wound up centered in San Francisco due to it being a common factor in where members either lived or had addicted children on the streets. This focus, and the group's scrutiny of San Francisco officials leading with Mayor London Breed, resulted in a high-profile billboard in the city.

"After about three months, Mayor Breed decided to end her declaration of emergency that she had declared and we were like, 'What are you doing? Nothing's changed,'" Berlinn said. "And on top that she goes to Europe and tells people, 'Come to San Francisco, it's a great place to visit.'"

After some fundraising, Berlinn's group paid for a billboard reading "Famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl" to be displayed for a month over San Francisco's Union Square. Although the effort garnered widespread media attention, Berlinn said that tangible effects on the ground from Breed and other officials were still lacking.

"We got a lot of press around that, and we were hoping something would change, but Mayor Breed didn't really do a whole lot differently," Berlinn said.

Despite the media attention, Berlinn said she was discouraged that outlets such as MSNBC and CNN hadn't picked up the story, while conservative outlets such as Fox News were. However, she said she was eager to educate parents and children through any platform available.

"I did Tucker Carlson not because I'm a huge fan of him, but because I believe the families who watch Tucker Carlson, their children deserve to hear the message as well," Berlinn said.

Berlinn said the motivation for her and others at MADD, despite their scrutiny of policies in San Francisco amid a surge of unflattering right-wing media attention to the city and surrounding area, was entirely non-partisan. And they were frustrated by a landscape in which drug addiction is painted as a polarizing issue.

"This is a nonpartisan issue," Berlin said. "It has nothing to do with liberals or conservatives. It has to do with saving lives, and it's very frustrating to me that we can't get on these news channels that think all we're trying to do is put down the liberal leadership, and that's absolutely not what we're doing."

"I try to explain to people that we're just trying to save lives, and I'm not saying that one political person is better than another, but I can definitely say that the policies that are lenient and enabling that I'm seeing in San Francisco are not helpful, and my son would even say that," Berlinn added.

Berlinn said that while she and others in MADD see policies in San Francisco as enabling users rather than contending with the root causes of addiction, they are well aware of the delicacy of treating mental health and addiction issues.

In her experience though, Berlinn said that harsher penalties had been more effective for Sylvester.

"The times where I was able to get my son to go into rehab was when he'd been arrested and he had a couple of days in jail, and he got sober and got some clarity," Berlinn said. "Is arresting addicts the best choice? No. Is putting pressure on them so they can choose rehab over jail a good choice? Yes. So I would like to see mandatory rehab for repeat offenders."

Taking the fight to Sacramento and beyond

Having recognized Breed's limitations as mayor to contend with an issue ravaging the state and nation both, Berlinn said that she and MADD were now directing their efforts further up, with a new billboard in Sacramento.

"We believe honestly that it's not something (Breed) can even fix on her own, so we thought OK we'll go to the governor. Maybe he has some resources and he can step in and he can give her the resources she might need," Berlinn said. "That's why we did the billboard in Sacramento calling on Newsom to close the open air drug markets in all of California as well as San Francisco."

The shift in focus toward the state and nation, rather than concentrating efforts in San Francisco, comes as fentanyl continues making its way to the surrounding areas, including the Tri-Valley, Berlinn said.

"I work in Oakland, and I mean, I see the fingers of what's going on in San Francisco slowly reaching into the counties surrounding San Francisco," Berlinn said. "My son tells me he sees more and more high school-aged students come into the city and buy fentanyl and bring it back with them."

In Berlinn's view, the rise of fentanyl, as well as increasing acceptance for prescription drugs and marijuana legalization, have led today's youth to be less afraid of drugs, despite fentanyl making them riskier than ever, making conversations with kids as young as pre-teens necessary.

"It definitely needs to be started in middle school sadly, and I think in middle school because marijuana has been legalized for people 18 and older, so they don't see it as a threat," Berlinn said. "But honestly there have been some teenagers who have died from smoking marijuana that's been laced with fentanyl, so they really can't trust that anything they get on the streets that doesn't come from a dispensary or doctor is going to be safe."

"I think parents need to tell their kids that there's some new things in drugs that can literally kill them if they take it one time," Berlinn added.

In particular, Berlinn pointed to the easy availability of counterfeit prescription drugs on social media platforms such as Snapchat, which she said her younger child isn't allowed to use.

"They can order what they think is a Xanax or a Percocet and have it delivered to their home like a pizza, and they take it and they can die in their bedroom," Berlinn said.

Although she lauded harm reduction efforts such as fentanyl test trips, Berlinn noted that these were unreliable for pills in particular, and not perfect in general.

"It's almost like wearing a condom and having sex," Berlinn said. "You're still taking a chance."

With the rise of fentanyl and the ubiquity of young people's curiosity about, and experimentation, with drugs, Berlinn said that the most dangerous idea for parents was that drug addiction and overdose death aren't risks for their children in particular.

"I have met a number of parents who thought 'not my kid,'" Berlinn said. "They had no idea this would happen. They knew nothing about these things until it happened to their 4.0, musically talented, amazing kid ... If you're saying 'not my kid,' if you think it can't happen to your kid, you're fooling yourself because it only takes them experimenting one time.

"And these days, especially with the culture around drugs right now, I think more than ever they think it's OK to try. And it's not."

Like many parents of pre-teens and teens, Berlinn said drug use was already popular when she was growing up. However, she emphasized that modern drugs such as fentanyl paint an entirely new, and more sinister, landscape than parents might be familiar with.

"It's not the drugs we were dealing with when we were kids," Berlinn said. "This is so much more deadly and addicting."

Learn more about Berlinn's organization at


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