Speaking at the funeral for her 20-year-old daughter Cairo last week, Schyla Pondexter-Moore made a poignant observation.
Someone in the congregation let out a mournful “Oh, God,” and others began to weep.
Since the beginning of the District’s opioid epidemic in 2015, the epicenter of the crisis has been in Southeast Washington, which is predominantly Black and has the largest concentration of low- income neighborhoods in the city. The majority of fentanyl overdose victims have been Black men between the ages of 50 and 70, with at least a decade-long history of heroin addiction.
But within two weeks in June, Cairo Pondexter and Jayla McBroom gave us a heartbreaking look at what some fear may be opioids’ newest target.
Jayla lived in Congress Park; Pondexter in the Washington Highlands. Pondexter had spent two years at Delaware State University after graduating from Ballou High School. Jayla had been transferred from a high school in D.C. to another school in Florida “to get her away from harmful influences in our neighborhood,” said Shekita McBroom, her mother.
Jayla had returned to D.C. in November because of concerns about covid-19 and was supposed to return to school in Florida this fall.
Both were athletic — Pondexter was a swimmer; Jayla was taking boxing lessons. And both were described by friends as vibrant and determined to overcome whatever obstacles they encountered on life’s journey.
Yet both fell prey to what some believe is a new form of fentanyl being marketed to young adults.
Pondexter died June 13; Jayla died June 22.
Last week, Jarod Forget, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Washington Division, issued a warning about an increase in drug overdose deaths in the D.C. area tied to counterfeit pills containing fentanyl.
“We fear young people will find pills especially appealing,” said Forget. “They think they’re purchasing OxyContin or Xanax, and have no idea that they’re getting deadly fentanyl. They have no idea that one pill could kill them. Educating our students and families about this danger has become one of our highest priorities.”
In 2018, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she hoped to reduce opioid overdoses by half. And there are many efforts underway to expand drug treatment and overdose interventions in the hardest-hit parts of the city. Community-based organizations are using spoken word and performance art to educate young people about the dangers.
Yet as my colleague Lola Fadulu reported recently, fatal opioid overdoses increased 46 percent in the District in 2020. Virginia saw its deadliest year ever for opioid-related fatalities in 2020, with a 47 percent increase compared to 2019. And Maryland saw a nearly 19 percent jump in fatal overdoses involving opioids.
“We have to do something that will educate our young people now,” Shekita McBroom said. “With fentanyl, you might not even get the chance to go to treatment, even if there were more treatment programs.
“We have to tell people, don’t try anything that somebody gives you who you don’t trust. Don’t leave your drinks unattended. Don’t smoke anything. Don’t take any pills that people offer you.”
She paused and added, “I don’t know who’s going to listen to me. My influence was minor compared to what was coming from social media.”
Both Pondexter-Moore and McBroom gave the names of the rappers that their daughters listened to. And many of them were famous for romanticizing drugs. 42 Dugg and Tee Grizzley rapped about serving molly (ecstasy), weed, bars (Xanax), and lean (the codeine-based drink sometimes laced with fentanyl that is said to give the user the lean of a heroin addict).
But there was nothing romantic about the consequences.
McBroom remembers Jayla coming home late the night before she died, her eyes dark and glazed.
“I said, ‘Jayla, you look like you’re high or something,’ ” McBroom recalled. “She said, ‘No, Mommy, I’m okay.’ Then she went upstairs, made a dance video, posted it on social media and went to bed.”
The next morning, McBroom went to her daughter’s room to wake her. Called her name — no response. Touched her feet — they were cold.
“I looked at her face and saw a white foam in her nostrils,” McBroom recalled. “I said, ‘What the hell . . .’ And just collapsed.”
At Pondexter’s funeral, her mother talked about two daughters — women who were close in age and shared so many similarities, and their mothers, who were sharing a pain they hoped others might be spared.
“We have lost too many lives, especially young lives, to the opioid epidemic,” Pondexter-Moore said. She implored everyone, “Please do your research on this epidemic. Fentanyl is in everything, and it’s not a game.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.