THE FENTANYL FALLOUT: Taking the Fight Against Fentanyl to the Frontlines
After losing son to fentanyl, Greybull mother channels grief into action
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Jun 06, 2023
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Jordan Jackson had big plans. At 25, he was living in Cody and working as a technician at Bear Co. Tire. He’d talked about rejoining his heavy metal band and maybe even moving to Billings to be with his new girlfriend.
Those dreams were cut short, however, when Jackson took a pill laced with fentanyl that he thought was a prescription opioid. Half of a pill was enough to kill him. Jackson died on Jan. 2., and his body was discovered in his apartment the following day by his employer after he failed to report to work.
Jackson’s mother, Brenda Armstrong, 46, is at a loss to describe her grief. In the absence of words, she has channeled her devastation into action: Since losing her son, the Greybull mother has become an outspoken advocate to educate others about the dangers of fentanyl and push for harsher laws to hold drug dealers accountable for the deaths of their buyers.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Armstrong said, “but I want to raise awareness. If people don’t think there is a problem in the state, they are very wrong.”
Jackson was not a drug addict, she noted, but occasionally used marijuana. His girlfriend of six months had no idea he used drugs even casually. But that night – for whatever reasons – Jackson purchased what he thought was Oxycodone without realizing it would kill him. Armstrong believes the drug dealer who sold him the pills should be held accountable.
“He was poisoned and had no idea what he was buying,” she said.
New legislation on the horizon
Jackson allegedly purchased the pills from Greybull resident Michael Fuentes, whose case is pending before Big Horn District Court. Fuentes faces four felony counts of delivering of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, as well as a misdemeanor for possession of a controlled substance. His pretrial conference is scheduled for Tuesday; his jury trial will begin on June 26.
In Wyoming, there is no law that prosecutes drug dealers in cases when their customers die of overdoses despite lawmakers’ attempts to put one in place during the recent legislative session. Senate File 181 would have allowed prosecutors to charge dealers with manslaughter for overdose deaths resulting from methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl. The bill passed the Senate but failed on the third reading in the House on a vote of 23-38 with one member excused.
National legislation, however, took a step forward last month. On May 25, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill (289-133) that would enact harsher criminal penalties and stricter controls on fentanyl-related drugs by classifying them as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The measure would make permanent a temporary designation set to expire at the end of 2024. Rep. Harriet Hageman (R.-Wyo.) voted in favor of the bill, which now rests with the Senate.
Schedule 1 drugs are designated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as substances that currently have no medical use and are considered to be highly addictive with a potential for abuse. The bill, called the HALT Fentanyl Act, is intended to give law enforcement another tool to help combat the national crisis of synthetic opioid overdose deaths, mostly involving fentanyl.
In Wyoming, fentanyl-related deaths also are on the rise. Forty-eight residents died of an overdose related to fentanyl in 2022, up from 10 deaths in 2019, the Wyoming Department of Health reported.
So far this year, there have been 17 fentanyl-related deaths in Wyoming, according to provisional figures provided by Kim Deti, the department’s public information officer. Drug-related deaths frequently involve more than one substance, and death certificates can be delayed or incomplete in cases when a resident dies outside of the state.
Last week, the federal government took further steps to hit the fentanyl crisis at its source. On May 30, the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions on 17 individuals and entities in China and Mexico either involved directly or indirectly in the sale of pill press machines, die molds and other equipment used to manufacture illegitimate pills that are often laced with fentanyl.
Accomplished athlete, musician
At 6-foot-4, Jackson was a standout athlete and a loving brother to three siblings. (They were not comfortable speaking about Jackson or his death, Armstrong said.) He played basketball and football at Greybull High School, traveled with the Amateur Athletic Union basketball team and was chosen to play in the Shrine Bowl during his senior year.
But Jackson’s true love was music. Like his father, Corey Jackson, he was a brilliant guitarist, Armstrong said. He picked up the instrument at age 12 after his father’s death, taught himself how to play and later started a band — Day x Day — with high school friends.
Jackson is one of three Wyomingites featured in the DEA’s exhibit, “The Faces of Fentanyl.” Armstrong wanted him to be part of the exhibit when she learned there were only two other representatives from Wyoming. Due to the volume of submissions, there isn’t enough room for Jackson’s photo and others, so the collection is now digital.
“This breaks my heart,” she said.
As a result, Armstrong became the sole Wyomingite to join the First Lady Campaign—a group that lobbies first ladies to display photos in the governor’s mansions of those who have died from fentanyl homicides. Armstrong is in the process of writing her letter to Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon.
On her “A Voice for Jordan” Facebook page, Armstrong posts news articles about arrests and alarming trends involving fentanyl. Most troubling to her are recent efforts by cartels, which the DEA has identified as major distributors of illicit substances, to lace fentanyl with marijuana and other drugs. In one case, fentanyl was sprayed on a $5 bill that a 14-year-old Illinois girl picked up off the street; she later died from exposure to the drug.
Part of Armstrong’s outreach efforts involve a reframing of the classification of overdose deaths due to fentanyl. In her mind, it is not an overdose, but rather a poisoning because people like her son had no idea what they were buying.
Removing the stigma
While Armstrong doesn’t defend Jackson’s drug purchase, she doesn’t want his mode of death to define him. “He shouldn’t have done what he did, but he shouldn’t be judged for it, either,” she said. “Nor should those people who are struggling with drug addictions. We need to get them help.”
As she continues her outreach, Armstrong wants Jackson to be remembered for the man he was.
“My son touched many people in his short life,” she said, fighting tears as she described him in the past tense.
Armstrong always was the mom in the stands, screaming loudly for her son when he was on the football field or basketball court. She hopes she’s making Jackson proud as she continues to raise her voice, harnessing her grief into action.
“We need to raise awareness in Wyoming,” Armstrong said. “If people don’t think [fentanyl is] a problem here, they are sorely mistaken.”