Victoria, BC June 23, 2018
Just this week, the Government of Canada legalized cannabis.This is a welcome, positive, and long-overdue step.
In listening over the past year to the discussion and debate about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, it is apparent to me that the arguments in favour of this measure are overwhelming: it helps with harm reduction; it eliminates the criminal element; it provides safety of product; it protects children and vulnerable Canadians; it unclogs our criminal justice system to deal with real crime; it treats addiction and substance use as a health issue, not a criminal or moral one.
However, it is patently obvious that the arguments in favour of cannabis legalization can be applied with equal force to all drugs. In fact, because other drugs do and have the capacity to cause death, I think the arguments are even stronger for legalizing and properly regulating all drugs.
But this is not just a theoretical position – fortunately, we have real examples and hard evidence to back it up. In 1999, there was a drug crisis in Portugal. Use of hard drugs was rampant and approximately one per cent of their population reported a drug addiction. So in 2001, Portugal decided to treat the possession and use of small quantities of drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. They decriminalized the use of all drugs, even heroin and cocaine, and unleashed a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. Though possession is still legally prohibited, violations are treated as administrative infractions and removed completely from the criminal realm. That means getting caught using or possessing drugs could result in a small fine or a referral to treatment where appropriate, but not jail time or a criminal record.
The crisis in Portugal soon stabilized, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. Portugal’s mortality rate from drugs is now four times lower than the European average, the number of teenagers who have experimented with drugs has fallen, and the number of people in treatment has increased. 90 percent of public money spent fighting drugs is now channeled toward health-care goals — just 10 per cent is spent on enforcement.
In contrast, in Canada, 70 percent of funding spent combating drug use is spent on enforcement. We have the second highest rates of cannabis use among young people in the world and an opioid overdose crisis that is staggering. 4,000 Canadians lost their lives to overdoses in 2017, up from 3,000 in 2016. We're on track in 2018 to exceed that death toll, with as many as 6,000 Canadians dying from overdoses.
In British Columbia, overdose deaths spiked this March, marking the province's second-highest monthly total in history according to the BC Coroner’s Service.
At the Liberal Party's recent policy convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt Jagmeet Singh and the NDP’s position on decriminalization and medical regulation as a means of responding to drug overdose deaths.
A coalition of 200 family, friends, organizations, policy experts (including former Liberal leader Bob Rae) impacted by the overdose crisis wrote an open letter urging the Liberals to:
“Be the progressive government you promised to be, choosing human rights and evidence-based policy over ideological relics. We need you to listen to our voices as we call for the essential next step: decriminalization. The example of Portugal and other European countries illustrates that this policy works. We ask you to prevent thousands of more unnecessary deaths by supporting this resolution.”
However, both the Liberal Minister of Health and the Prime Minister responded by unequivocally ruling out action.
Here’s what Liberal Health Minister Petipas-Taylor said this week when confronted with the fact that 4000 Canadians - a new record - died last year from overdoses: “By decriminalizing drugs, we’re certainly not going to fix the problem that’s on the streets right now,” she said.
Instead, she pointed out that in May, Ottawa announced that opioids dispensed in Canada will soon have to carry stickers that warn the drugs can cause dependence, addiction and overdoses. Talk about ignoring the evidence. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.
The Liberal government has also refused to launch an investigation or initiate legal action to recover damages from opioid manufacturers for the tragic consequences and public costs of this crisis.
Instead, federal government has left victims to seek their own recourse through a private class-action lawsuit. This resulted in a proposed settlement of only $20 million, with a paltry $2 million allocated to all provincial and federal health authorities in Canada. Thankfully, this settlement was rejected because no steps were taken to ensure that past and potential future public health care costs were identified.
Imagine - we have experienced over 10,000 deaths and spent over a billion dollars in public health costs from opioids - and yet our federal government has not so much as launched an investigation into opioid manufacturer practices who themselves have earned billions of dollars in profits from these dangerous and highly addictive products.
This stands in contrast to aggressive action from U.S. authorities, which has led to almost $700 million in damages and criminal convictions of opioid manufacturer executives for improper marketing - with many more lawsuits pending in their courts.
What message does it send when thousands of Canadians die from overdoses and our government fails to seek justice?
What does it say when our government refuses even to consider the demonstrated successes of other nations in reducing drug use and deaths?
What conclusion are we to draw when our federal government flatly refuses to declare the opioid overdose crisis a national public health emergency - even though provinces have and opioid overdose death is now the number one killer of men between the ages of 30 and 39?
We owe it to the memory of those lost to this crisis to hold those who profited to account. We need to stop treating the most vulnerable members of our society like criminals. We need to treat substance use and addiction for what they are: health issues, and social justice issues, not criminal and moral ones.
We need significant, new federal money for addiction prevention, education, treatment, and harm reduction - across all modalities, from abstinence to 12 step to opioid substitution, tailored for every demographic, from youth to women to Indigenous Canadians. And treatment must be available as a fully insured service provided by our public health care system so that individuals and families can get timely access at quality facilities regardless of income or ability to pay.
My friends – you have felt the pain of substance use like no others. You have experienced the frustration, the powerlessness, the heartache, the grief that only those who have lost a loved one to the disease of addiction can know.
I myself lost my father when I was 20 years old to a methadone overdose. I know, feel and share your pain.
Your courage to show up, to share your experiences, to speak up - to demand more in the knowledge that we can do better - is in service of the greatest legacy we can pay to those we have lost: to do everything in our power to prevent the avoidable, unnecessary death of another mother’s child to addiction.
Thank you for your concern for others. Thank you for your commitment to act.
Thank you for your willingness to use your pain in service to others.
Together – as we just did for cannabis this week – we will prevail in making drug policy in Canada more rational, more effective and more compassionate.
Don Davies, MP | député Vancouver Kingsway, Critic for Health | Porte-parole du NPD en matière de santé, New Democratic Party | Nouveau Parti démocratique
Victoria, BC June 23, 2018
We acknowledge in gratitude that our gathering place is within the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Songhees, the Esquimalt and the Wsanec nations.
Before we begin I would like to bring your attention to the Petition to the House of Commons to address the opioid crisis that we urge you to sign – wave your clipboards volunteers. John and Jenifer Hedican of Comox lost their beloved son Ryan to a fentanyl poisoning. They like us are not only grief stricken, they are angry and passionate. Thank you, John and Jennifer, for this petition and its trajectory.
We are here to demand that our government and all governments of Canada turn their attention to the fact that there have been over 7000 deaths in 4 years and many before that. These people died of the preventable cause of using illicit, unregulated, and toxic substances. We demand the government place the highest priority on ending the war on drugs, which is a war on the people who use drugs.
And specifically, today we ask government to DECRIMINALIZE the people who possess and use illicit drugs. They are not criminals. they are simply using drugs.
Drug use must be treated as a social and health-care issue rather than a criminal matter.
Many people are addicted to drugs - they take drugs out of a great need, a need that most of cannot fathom unless we’ve been there. Some are seeking a respite from the harshness of their lives. Some are kids looking for a new experience. It is not for the government to literally judge an individual based on what they want or need to take into their own bodies. They are not criminals.
And to see them as such, to treat them as such, then to deny them the medicine they need once they are dumped into the criminal justice system is inhumane. It is not befitting of the country of Canada
In comparison, am I arrested for possessing and drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes? No! Why not? Because prohibition on alcohol didn’t work in the early 20th century, the government decided that these potentially very harmful substances are legal, and legal to possess and use as unwisely as we like.
Much of the world has realized that decriminalization necessary to mitigate the problem:
- The Global Commission on Drug Policy, the World Health Organization and both the Canadian and American public health associations support the decriminalization of possessing small quantities of currently illegal psychoactive substances.
- The countries of Portugal, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, the Netherlands, the Czech republic have all decriminalized drugs. They have shown that such policies free up police and the entire criminal justice system for more serious crimes. These policies send people with addictions toward treatment rather than jail.
Framing drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than one of health has simply served to fuel the very lucrative black market in fentanyl and other non-pharmaceutical, divert resources from law enforcement and marginalize those who are already vulnerable
People who use these drugs are my kid and your kid, your brother, your aunt, your partner and maybe you. They are people who live next door, the people beside you in the parking lot. They are not criminals. They may carry trauma, they may live in poverty, they may have mental health challenges, they may have simply become caught by addiction through a doctor’s prescription.
Today we are working on one ask. Decriminalize the possession of and use of illicitly obtained drugs for personal use. It is not a war on drugs that we see, it is a war on the people who use drugs.
Let the government, Mr. Trudeau, see that lives will be improved, tax dollars will be saved and put to use in health care, treatment, education, shelters, harm reduction measures. Mr. Trudeau, your party as well as the NDP and the Green Party wants to decriminalize drugs. What IS the problem here?
Moms Stop the Harm primarily works to support and keep alive people who use drugs. We want them to be alive, we want every kid who experiments with drugs to live through the experience, we want people who are addicted to have a chance to get to treatment and recovery.
We advocate for drug policies that keep users alive and safe. They must not be criminalized, sent to jail, and not treated. They need help not jail. Decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit drugs.
Decriminalize those who possess and use illicit drugs NOW!
Leslie McBain, co-founder Moms Stop The Harm, bereaved mother of Jordan Miller
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (Victoria, B.C.)
JUNE 13, 2018
Join Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH) in a rally calling for #decriminalizenow and #endthestigma of substance use. MSTH is a network of Canadian families whose loved ones have died due to drug harms or those who hope for recovery.
On June 23rd at 12 pm MSTH members and our community allies will be hosting a rally in Victoria, on the steps of the BC Legislature. This rally aims to bring awareness to the harms associated with the criminalization of drug use.
Moms Stop The Harm calls for an end to the failed war on drugs. The war on drugs has been a war on drug users and the financial and human cost to society has been staggering. We envision a new approach based on reducing harm, where people who misuse drugs are treated with dignity, respect, compassion, and support. One of the most common themes we have experienced is that most of our loved ones died using alone or with others who were too afraid to call for help. This is one of the driving reasons we are urgently calling on our government for immediate drug policy reform with a focus on decriminalization of the personal possession and use of illicit drugs, and restorative justice rather than criminal justice.
As outlined in the Hedican Petition we are calling for drug policy reform because;
- Over 4000 Canadians died in 2017 and over 2,800 in 2016 due to preventable opioid overdose resulting from fentanyl-poisoned sources;
- The current war on drugs has been costly and grossly ineffective and resulted in widespread stigma towards addiction and against those who use illicit drugs;
- Regulating to ensure safe sources, with proper measures and bylaws, will reduce the criminal element associated with street drugs; and
- Problematic substance use is a health issue and is not resolved through criminalizing personal possession and consumption.
The June 23rd rally will feature the following speakers:
- Leslie McBain, Co-founder MSTH, whose son Jordan died by accidental overdose
- Don Davies, MP Vancouver Kingsway
- Donald MacPherson, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
- Nancy Murphy, a mother who has fought for her daughter's recovery, and her daughter, Tara Levis
- Musician Kat Wahama, whose son Joseph died from fentanyl poisoning
Quotes from Speakers:
“Being arrested and incarcerated for substance use is the most stigmatizing of all policies, while decriminalizing drugs encourages people to seek help and saves resources. These dollars are far better spent on treatment and education than in the criminal justice system. —Leslie McBain, Leslie McBain, Co-founder MSTH
“Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and the same dynamic can be seen in the criminalization of drugs, in particular, opioids and stimulants. Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm to the individuals, their families and to society, while it does nothing to help those in need of treatment nor does it reduce the supply of illicit drugs. “ —Leslie McBain, Leslie McBain, Co-founder MSTH
“Substance use and addiction affect every community, every family. They are not issues of character, or morality - they are issues of health. We need to implement sensible, compassionate and evidence-based policies that are effective and save lives. It is time we decriminalize and legally regulate all drugs and focus on education, prevention and treatment.” —Don Davies, MP Vancouver Kingsway
"It is long past time that Canada moves beyond the punitive and harmful practice of criminalizing people who use drugs, people that are part of our families and communities who deserve all the support love and compassion that we have in order to heal and get on with their lives. Decriminalization of possession of drugs for personal use has been shown to be an effective way to reduce stigma, increase health outcomes and use scarce public resources more wisely" - Donald MacPherson, Executive Director, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
Information and media interviews:
Leslie McBain, 250-686-6490, firstname.lastname@example.org
Petra Schulz, 780-708-2244, email@example.com
Lorna Thomas, 780-905-8159, firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note: A professional photographer will be attending and taking photos. These images can be supplied to media upon request.
Sheila Jennings, MSTH Ontario Leader
On April 5, 2018 the British Columbia government issued a press release stating that it will allow nurse practitioners to prescribe hydromorphone, methadone and suboxone. This progressive public health measure was put forward to save lives in the present opioid drug crisis. This measure is progressive because many Canadians still view those who’ve overdosed or who are at risk of doing so, with a mixture of fear and contempt. For others however, these are our children and the fathers and mothers of our grandchildren. As such, to us they matter.
The backdrop to the BC health policy initiative is the shocking number overdoses, many of which involved exposure to the drug fentanyl. There were 982 deaths in BC in 2016, with 67 % involving fentanyl. Approximately 1,422 overdoses occurred in B.C. in 2017 and fentanyl was implicated in 80% of those deaths. In Alberta almost 1.9 people a day died from fentanyl poisoning in 2017. That number is growing. Several people overdosed in Saskatchewan last month. Fentanyl had arrived on the scene.
An Ontario MHLTC News Release reported that from July to September 2017, there were 2,449 ER visits for overdose, up from 1,896 in the previous three months. Deaths due to overdoses rose dramatically from 2016 to 2017. Those ambulances you see go whizzing by on their way to an emergency room, people’s children are dying inside them. My child was in one of those ambulances. The Canada Health Agency recently reported that there were over 4,000 overdoses in Canada last year ̶ 1,500 more than in 2016. Advocate Zoe Dodds has referred the crisis as ‘carnage’. Advocate, Vikki Reynolds, referred to it during a workshop I attended as a ‘horror show’. The collective noun for a group of crows is ‘a murder’. I’m going with ‘a massacre’ of overdoses. In 2015 my son’s heart stopped during an overdose. A not uncommon event in these kinds of overdoses. These numbers make it feel like a massacre to me. Fortunately for us, a woman nearby saw and had called 911. She remained with my child and she remains, whoever she is, in my mind.
Mothers want more progressive health care initiatives. In 2017 Ian Hanomansing published “If it hasn't happened ... it's coming': Mothers of addicts urge a radical approach to fentanyl crisis.” The article features women speaking about their children’s experiences with drug use. They told their stories in the setting of extreme stigma to illustrate the need for change in our orientation towards those who use drugs. Their message: stop criminalizing drug users and start protecting them instead. They warn people will not stop dying until Canada wakes up.
We must learn from those with lived experience, and in particular from youth who’ve survived. They are the experts. We can also learn however from mothers living the crisis. As well, professionals with various forms of real life experience with the crisis, like Leigh Chapman and Zoe Dodd in Toronto, and Vikki Reynolds in BC are working very hard, caring, educating and advocating for others about the opioid crisis that affects all of us. I’m fortunate that Chapman provided us with extremely helpful personal advice by phone. We must listen closely to what these experts say, because too many people are discovering a very hard way that there’s little margin for error. Death can come to your family in an innocuous looking pill. Don’t underestimate the power of peer pressure, if you do not want to learn that your child has died, or is fighting for their life in an ICU, learn from those who have.
You can also learn about the crushing effects of stigma. Jettison terms like drug addict and junkie from your vocabulary. Learn about opioid dependence and withdrawal. Find out about ‘harm reduction.’ According to a recent Angus Reid poll, 1 in 8 Canadians (12.5%) know someone who became opioid dependent in the last five years. Yet Statistics Canada’s January 2018 Opioid Awareness Survey found that only about one in fifteen Canadians (7%) know how to access Naloxone and use it to interrupt an overdose until help arrives. Get a Naloxone Kit and ask someone how to use it. Do this, because if you come across someone who has overdosed ̶ and some of you reading this will ̶ they will be relying on you for help.
Support safe injection sites. Or at least don’t oppose them. The opioid crisis is the menacing force to be reckoned with; drug users are not. One mother in the article I mention above comments of the overdose crisis, “If it hasn't happened in your family ... either you're in denial or it's coming.”
It’s a fact. Be prepared.
Ms. E. Enkin, Ombudsman, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, P.O. Box 500, Station A, Toronto, Ontario
April 5th, 2018
Dear Ms. Enkin,
We are writing this letter to draw attention to a serious concern we have regarding the use of misleading imagery in CBC articles presenting issues around the epidemic of substance related overdose. The organization we represent is called “Moms Stop the Harm”. We are a national network of mothers from across Canada who have lost loved ones to substance misuse or whose loved one is hoping for recovery. Our organization’s primary objective is to save lives. Our efforts to do this are founded in the principles of harm reduction and opportunities that are served under that umbrella.
From one end of this country to the other we are seeing our membership grow every day. More notably, it is apparent that the demographic assigned to overdose has changed and with that it is paramount we change our paradigms, especially those that serve to stigmatize the picture of substance abuse. The demographic we are referencing here are younger people who are using and dying alone. They are dying at home in upscale communities, dying on the sofas at teenage house parties, or even safely parked in the driveway in the family car.
The CBC has taken to repeatedly using the image of a green pill, a discarded needle and/or pictures of homeless people. They certainly have shock value and with that will capture the viewers’ attention. However, these photos could quite easily mislead the community into thinking that the deaths are confined to a specific user group.
Your organization has a vast following and coast to coast influence. It would be fair to suggest that your reporters are aware of the truth behind that which they report. With that awareness must come an understanding that the demographic of people dying by overdose statistically is vast and not limited to drug users who injects their substance(s). Many more are dying by alternative methods of consumption. Tainted illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are taking the lives of far too many. Research has shown that 80% of all street drugs are contaminated with deadly fentanyl.
Journalists have a responsibility to share the truth and educate the public. When they fail to show the broader representation, as is the case with the current imagery, it can feed the stereotypical story that too many believe. The story that tells us that only street involved people are dying during the overdose crisis. The public are in fact almost assured by virtue of a single method of consumption represented, that they are safe. Most don’t want to believe that their loved one could die by overdose let alone use illicit drugs that put them at risk. The truth is they can die, statistically they are dying and green pills and needles represent only a portion of users.
The statement below was taken from your own Journalistic Standards and Practices. It outlines a clear commitment to fairly representing the vulnerable in your media efforts.
We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived… We avoid generalizations, stereotypes, and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt… When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.
Deadly drugs are evolving and with them, so too should the imaging that serves to represent the substance user. We would like to add some suggestions of images that are more aligned with the actual deaths or using habits of our members loved ones.
- cocaine on a neatly organized office desk
- a young man on a sofa at a house party, head bowed seemingly sleeping
- a small bag of powder next to a teenager’s text book
In addition, pictures that tell stories of effort:
- images of people with lived or living experience from all a variety of backgrounds (including those who have died)
- photos of professionals providing treatment or harm reduction supports
- treatment or harm reduction supplies
We need greater communication about the opioid crisis across this country if we want to save lives. As a national news agency, you not only have an opportunity but more importantly a responsibility to the public. Generalizations such as images of people using and dying while out in public only feed the judgements placed on the marginalized and such images fail to represent the truth.
Marie Agioritis, leadership Saskatchewan – on behalf of our Canadian team.
Moms Stop the Harm
Below is the text of a letter MSTH sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to Ginette Petitpas Taylor, as well as the response from the Minister of Health.
February 13, 2018
The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, Office of the Prime Minister, 80 Wellington Street , Ottawa, Ontario, K1A0A2
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
We are writing on behalf of the 350 members of Moms Stop The Harm (www.momstoptheharm.com) whose loved ones have died drug-related deaths, many of which have occurred during the opioid overdose crisis. Members of our advocacy group recently attended Town Hall meetings in Edmonton and Nanaimo. Thank you for hearing our questions and comments about the need for drug policy reform at those two town-hall events, and thank you for offering your condolences on our losses.
Did you know that since November 13th, 2017, over 400 letters were sent to the office of the Prime Minister by members of MSTH and their allies, and to date no one has received a personal reply? The letters were sent as part of a campaign called “Do Something Prime Minister.” Information about the campaign and photos can be found here: http://www.momsstoptheharm.com/personal-blog/
Those who sent letters are all relatives (mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, cousins) and friends of those who died of drug-related causes. Almost all of the letters that were sent contained cherished photos of our loved ones who have died.
Given the personal nature of the letters and photos that were sent, it is very hurtful to the families that they have not received a response. As MSTH member Patricia Clark states: “This was a very heartfelt campaign and I am very disappointed that my family has not received any response from the Prime Minister.” Another MSTH member stated: “It was hard to do (to send the letter and photo), and my family will echo this, and to be ignored is brutal.” Members of MSTH feel stigmatized because the federal government has failed to contact us after we sent in photos and letters relating to our losses. Now that you know about this letter writing campaign, we are sure you will respond with a letter that we can share with the people who participated in the campaign. We hope your response begins with offering your condolences.
During your recent town hall meeting in Nanaimo, you stated, “there is a lot more to do at the Federal Government. We’re always happy to do more….We are facing tragedies…you are facing terrible tragedies that have no business in a country like Canada…we should be able to keep our communities safe. We are aware of the opioid crisis and it is something we need to redouble our efforts on to honour those we have lost and make sure we don’t keep losing the best and brightest….”
We appreciate your willingness to do more and would like to make several suggestions based on our experience and representing at least 400 families who have lost a loved one to the overdose crisis. We specifically request that you instruct the federal government to:
- Deploy more federal financial investment in responding to the overdose crisis and fund the response at the scale that would be expected for any other public health emergency of this magnitude. However, while it is critical, more than just funding is required.
- Work with Provinces and Territories and provide leadership to address the lack of training for health care providers in evidence-based addiction treatment that has led to Canada not having a functioning addiction treatment system. Many of the deaths of our loved ones can be directly traced back to the failure of our non-existent addiction treatment system. Leadership at the federal level is needed to push the provinces and territories into establishing evidence-based health care provider education in addiction medicine. This includes the inclusion of addiction medicine in medical student and nursing student curricula, as well as, critically, funding for addiction medicine fellowships so that the expert workforce that does not presently exist will be created in the coming years.
- Correct the woefully inadequate resources Canada has directed towards action-oriented substance use and addiction research. We want to see the role of research in promoting social change in this controversial area acknowledged through the dramatic scale up of addiction research funding. This could support both responding to the opioid epidemic as well as funds to help address questions related to other drug policy reform needs, including cannabis legalization and the decriminalization of all currently illegal drugs. Here, we strongly recommend following the example of the US National Institutes of Health by creating a substance use-dedicated institute within the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Many of the services offered for addiction care in Canada are not based on a foundation of research and evidence, and establishing stronger research and knowledge translation capacity will help with needed implementation. Decisions like this make sense from an economic, political and knowledge mobilization perspective and should be made urgently.
- Create better governance to help organize the response to the overdose crisis. This could be accomplished through the formulation of a federal ministerial council on the opioid crisis. The council could be like the Alberta Ministers Opioid Emergency Response Commission (MOERC) initiated in Alberta in May, 2017 https://www.alberta.ca/albertas-opioid-crisis-response.aspx and draw on the experience of the Ministerial Advisory Council on the Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada. This new council, focused on the opioid crisis, needs to include people with lived experience and families (including indigenous representation), as well as scholars and practitioners and health officials, who have knowledge of and understand evidence based strategies to address the opioid crisis. The implementation of this Federal Ministerial Council should be announced along with considerable dedicated federal funding. Alberta invested $30 million annually, and we would expect that a federal investment would match this on a per population basis. Such a Council should advise on the allocation of this funding in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction.
- Provide dedicated resources and provide instruction to provinces and territories to establish family advocacy and support groups and peer-support groups. People directly affected by the opioid crisis, including people who use drugs and family members affected by substance use or addiction, are best positioned to identify and help implement solutions. These groups have not been well supported or acknowledged. The need for federal action in this area is urgent.
- Act now on drug policy reform. After years of inaction by the previous government regarding drug policy reform, we are encouraged by recent changes that your Liberal government has implemented including: passing the Good Samaritan Act, approving supervised consumption services across the country, supporting the piloting of drug checking initiatives, and initiating a national anti-stigma and education campaign. We are also encouraged that Liberal MPs are hoping to adopt a priority resolution at the Liberal Party of Canada’s policy convention that would direct the federal government to eliminate criminal penalties for simple possession and consumption of all illicit drugs. The decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use is urgently needed. Substance use disorder is not a moral failing. It is a health issue that requires treatment and continued support, rather than a criminal justice approach, an approach taken by Portugal, Switzerland and soon Norway and the State of Oregon.
We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible. The families who sent those 400 letters are waiting for a response that will acknowledge their losses and provide information to them about the next steps the Federal government is taking to address the opioid overdose crisis.
We also formally request the opportunity to meet with you and you team to hear directly how we can mobilize support for the implementation of the above initiatives. Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.
Leslie McBain, Petra Schulz, Lorna Thomas
Co-founders. Moms Stop The Harm.
Cc: Linda Duncan, MP; Elisabeth May, MP; Don Davis, MP; Ginette Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health; Suzy McDonald, Deputy Minister of of Health, BCCSU.
Petra was invited to present to the Law Enforement Round Table in Ottawa on March 19, 2018. The presentation given was a slightly abbreviated version from the text below.
Welcome to 2018, the year when more people will die from causes related to substance use in Canada than ever. When I wished my family and friends a happy New Year last night it was with a heavy heart. 2018 is the third year that begins without our youngest son Danny, and the first year for over 4000 Canadian families who lost a loved one to an overdose or other causes related to substance use in 2017.
How do I know that 2018 will be worse? I follow provincial (Alberta, British Columbia) and federal overdose surveillance reports on fatal overdoses and the reported trend is sharply upward. The users, advocates and front-line workers in my social media and personal networks have also seen significant increases in deaths. Every day more families join Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH). Most organizations would view growth from 3 founding members (Lorna Thomas, Leslie McBain and I) in May 2016 to over 300 members in December 2017 as a success, but in our case every new submission via our website comes with a story of desperation, fear, and pain. Desperation and fear for those who have a loved one struggling with substance use and the extreme pain of the newly bereaved. Too many times this year we received a cry for help from a family who do not know where to get treatment for a child, or how to deal with the loss of someone who had so much promise and their entire life ahead of them. The stories are so familiar showing bright young faces from all walks of life, backgrounds and regions of the county.
We have seen progress over the past year: more supervised consumption sites have been approved; peer and volunteer lead overdose prevention sites can soon operate legally; and Naloxone (an antidote that can reverse the effect of an overdose) is being distributed more widely in BC, Alberta, and Ontario. Access to treatment is improving and innovative treatment approaches, such as rapid access programs in emergency rooms and the provision of safe drugs, are being implemented. Several provinces and the federal government are developing anti-stigma campaigns, and the federal government has made funding available through its Substance Use and Addictions Program and other initiatives.
Why do people continue to die despite this progress? There is not one clear answer to this complex question, but part of the answer is that the federal government, provincial and territorial health care providers let the crisis get out of hand before taking action and the response has not been commensurate with its magnitude. Have we ever had 4000 people die from a disease or other health condition without a comprehensive national strategy?
Many of the measures taken to date , such as supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites, are most effective for people who are homeless or unstably housed. Data from the BC Coroners Service, released in October 2017, shows that 87% of overdoses occur indoors, often in people’s homes (59%) and presumably when people use alone. These at-risk users include casual users and those who have developed an addiction. Casual users seem to be most at risk, as they have not developed a tolerance for opioids and they may be unaware that other drugs are contaminated with fentanyl (tests at Insite in Vancouver show that around 80% of all street drugs contain a synthetic opioid, such as Fentanyl). Most casual users do not know how to recognize and respond to an overdose. According to a CBC News report from Winnipeg a young man who died when he and his friends shared pills they thought were Oxycontin. His friends and his brother thought he was “sleeping it off” when he was in fact dying from an overdose.
One of the greatest barriers to addressing the problem is the stigma that surrounds substance use, which causes both casual users and those who live with an addiction to hide their use, including by using alone. When people use alone, no one is there to help when they overdose, like our son Danny who we found dead in his apartment in downtown Edmonton, in walking distance to one of the approved supervised injection services.
Distributing Naloxone will not help if people use in secret and alone as they cannot administer Naloxone on themselves. Even effective anti-stigma campaigns will not fully eliminate the misconception of the person who uses substances as someone who lacks willpower and has a problem that is entirely self-inflicted. Problematic substance use is still seen as a moral failing and not as a health issue.
What would it take to prove my dire perdiction wrong and reverse the deadly trend?
Instead of a patchwork of federal and provincial initiatives, a clear and coordinated national strategy with levels of investment at least equal (per person) to those made during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—when half as many people died in peak years as did in the opioid crisis in 2017 alone —is required. Such a strategy should be guided by people with lived experience, affected families, and be based on the best available evidence. This evidence tells us that we need to stop criminalizing substance use and start investing in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction as Portugal has done and Norway plans to do. Portugal has since reduced its overdose rate to 6 deaths per million of population, while the US is at 185. Canadian data from March 2017 shows 78 per million nationally, however, the hardest hit provinces and territories are much higher: BC's rate is 200 per million, the Yukon at 160 and Alberta at 138. These rates are not adjusted for year end numbers.
As the experience of European countries shows, decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use will help end the stigmatization of substance use and allow users to come forward and seek help through harm reduction measures and treatment. Decriminalization will also permit an open discussion about substance use that will lead to truly innovative approaches and more research findings.
Decriminalization is a bold step that our current government has been unwilling to take. In our most recent campaign we have asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “Do Something”, starting with acknowledging the magnitude of the opioid crisis and initiating a national strategy. So far, he has not responded to hundreds of Canadian families who have sent photos of loved ones who have died or purple hearts for individuals who are struggling. His silence is deafening and a slap in the face of those who have suffered so much.
As a society we should not accept the deaths of thousands of Canadians in the prime of their lives as the new normal. As families we will not be silent and stand by while our loved ones die from preventable causes. We should not have to start the New Year without our sons, daughters, brothers, fathers, mothers, relatives, and friends.
Individuals struggling with substances use have a right to access appropriate medical services and deserve the same level of support and care offered to those with other health conditions. We call on the Prime Minister, and all levels of government, to “Do Something”, to match investment in this crisis to its magnitude and to take the bold step of decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use.
Petra Schulz, Co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm, Edmonton, AB January 1, 2018
See results of our follow-up survey below campaign photos. More than 450 photos were sent to the Prime Minister, who so far has not replied to anyone.
Dear friends, fellow advocates and drug policy reformers,
We have all been feeling the pain of the rising death toll in the opioid crisis, as numbers of families in mourning grow. The actions of all levels of government are inadequate considering the magnitude of the problem. We need to see leadership at the top, starting with our prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Over the past months he has spoken on a number of issues, but has been relatively silent regarding this crisis and did not cover this topic at all at town halls this summer, that some MSTH members had a chance to attend.
To help him recognize how this impacts Canadian families we propose the following initiative, which we call the Do Something Prime Minister Photo Campaign starting on November 13, 2017 – on-going after that:
- Take a photo of your loved one (4x6, 5x7, or 8x10 – bigger is better)
- If you do not have a photo cut out a purple heart from construction paper and proceed. Also use a purple heart if you are sending on behalf of a person with living experience.
- On the back write
- their name [NOTE: If you are not able to use the actual name, chose a name, every person counts]; and the year they were born and the year they died.
- cause of death (e.g. accidental fentanyl poisoning, overdose, from substance use, using a drug that was laced with fentanyl, substance use related suicide, overdosed on prescription medication, etc.) and
- your relationship (son/daughter, brother/sister, spouse/partner, grandson/daughter, niece/nephew etc.). [NOTE: Multiple people can send a photo of the same person, illustrating how many are affected by each death]
- If you wish and have room, add a slogan. First, we tried to pick one, but our strengths as advocates is in our diversity, so write your own or chose from one of these: The Deaths Must Stop! - Stop the deaths! - Do something Prime Minister! (quoting Zoe Dodd) - How many more need to die? - Stop the deaths - save the future of your country - Why Are Canadian Children Dying? This Must Stop! - Somebody's Someone - Anyone’s Child - Empty Chairs - A Picture- More than a thousand words
- Use a regular envelope and write your return address on the envelope. You may also add that to the photo, so you can get a reply from the PM office.
- Send the envelope to [NOTE: no postage needed]: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Office of the Prime Minister 80 Wellington Street Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
- Please take a photo of your project and post it to one of our Facebook pages or email to Petra Schulz, so we can add the photo here.
Feel free to share this as widely as possible!
The families of MSTH
Here are the results of our follow-up survey, conducted in January 2018:
LOOKING BACK < MOVING FORWARD>
The 'Do Something Prime Minister' advocacy campaign was a success in many ways. More than 400 letters were sent to the office of the PM by MSTH Members and allies from other groups. And after that, 118 people filled out the survey to gather information and thoughts about the advocacy initiative. Thankyou to everyone who participated. Below are some of the common themes and suggestions that were offered about the campaign and some ideas on what MSTH could do next. Let us know what you think. (If you don't know about this advocacy campaign, a link in Comments will take you to that information)
THE SURVEY: Common Themes and Follow up Suggestions
COMMON THEMES OF COMMENTS OFFERED THROUGH THE SURVEY
1. Was a good way to get family and friends involved in the issue
2. Mail in campaign caught people’s attention on social media ( as opposed to on line messaging or petition.)
3. Got good media coverage which in turn may influence public education and understanding, empathy.
4. ‘do something’ message was weak. Rather than ‘do something’ could it have been ‘here’s what you need to do.’ Could have included information and action plan from MSTH on what the Prime Minister needs to do
5. disappointed that there has been no response from the PM office yet.
6. Campaign focused specifically on opioids/fentanyl. Could have included other drugs such as cocaine, meth, crack, ecstasy…given that a good number of the loved ones of MSTH members did not use opioids.
7. The campaign could have included images of those loved ones who are still alive and in recovery, not just those who have died.
8. A person who has worked on advocacy campaigns advised that putting the hearts on the outside of the envelopes was a mistake. Those receiving the letters might have just put them all in one pile and not opened them (yet).
9. The tone needs to be just right. “Research has shown that expressing anger and laying blame does not work. It puts people on the defensive and has the opposite of the desired effect…
The assumption should be that if they (the person(s) receiving the messages) were aware, surely they would be doing something about it.
In other words, instead of accusing them of inaction, you make it sound like you are giving them the benefit of the doubt... so you explain the situation to them.”
Suggestions for the Focus of Future MSTH initiatives:
1. Keep up the pressure on the office of the Prime Minister and send the key message(s) c/c to others such as Health Minister, MPs.
2. Education for front line workers
--doctors need more education on substance use
--emergency rooms need to be more responsive to those in distress due to mental illness and substance use
--anti stigma education for front line workers.
3. Education for youth
--have bereaved parents speak to youth groups.
4. A Campaign directed at Provinces, Members of Legislature given the Provinces have a lot of say in where Health dollars are spent.
--Tip: when mailing send Express post with tracking number
5. Campaign focusing on anti stigma
-increase understanding the addiction is a health issue.
(note: Both B.C. and Alberta have just released their anti-stigma campaign. Health Canada will be releasing their anti-stigma campaign shortly)
Leslie McBain, September 14, 2017
It is difficult in this complex crisis to know which way to go first. But as Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH) has always stated, first, we need to save lives. We know that a dead drug user will never recover. And we know the solutions.
Why are people dying? Simple - it is the toxic black-market drug supply.
Why does that black market exist? Because of the money and because of bad drug policy that drives people into the black market.
How do we rid ourselves of the major part of the black market? Supply safe drugs to those with substance use disorder (people living with addiction).
How do we provide safe drugs in the face of a federal government that refuses to consider decriminalization and regulation? We look at the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver as an example.
How do we encourage those with substance use disorder to go into effective and proven treatment? Provide multi path, low barrier, rapid access treatments combined with housing first strategies for those who are unstably housed. We must build the system and ensure that it works. Provide connection, empathy and humane treatment to those people addicted to drugs.
Sadly providing connection, conversation, and anti stigma community dialogue will have little impact on the death rates without the previous steps (safe supply and rapid low barrier access to effective treatment).
I know people will say, 'but we can only do what we can do”. True, but with courage, and passion, we can push the envelope. We must begin to think out of the box immediately. As the CAPUD (The Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs) says: #theytalkwedie. It is a slogan that comes to my mind every day.
Our actions must be guided by what is most important. First we have to stop the drug related deaths. We need to get naloxone on in the hand of every drug user, train people on the street, in bars, in educational institutions and every environment where people may be at risk in regular, widely advertised sessions in public places. Provide targeted intense messaging about not using alone, knowing about overdose and how to respond, and about the 911 emergency law. Saves lives and then look at housing and access to treatment.
Sorry to rant, but it is very frustrating to hear more talk, more research, more indirect, soft solutions to the overdose epidemic. In Canada more than 2,816 people died of a drug overdose in 2016, almost 1000 in BC alone. We must put our energies where they will make an immediate impact. Only the government bodies can provide the infrastructure. It comes down to creative thinking, courage, and funding! But first and foremost, we must save the lives of everyone's children.
August 31, 2017
Tansi…Hello and Good afternoon,
I would like to start first and foremost by acknowledging that we are gathering here today on treaty 6 territory on which out of respect for the land and its people must be honored and respected.
For those of you who don’t know me my name is Shanell Twan I am a proud member of AAWEAR [Alberta Addicts Who Educate And Advocate Responsibily] which is one of the co- host Organizations for today’s event.
We are Gathered here today FOR International Overdose Awareness day and to Acknowledge That We fight for those we love and have lost. The harms being caused by the war on drugs can no longer be ignored – so we are calling for more humane drug policies that support, and don’t punish, people who use substances. It is time to leave behind the harmful politics, ideologies and prejudices – and prioritize the health and welfare of those affected. I am here today as a concerned Albertan and an indigenous woman who values the recent truth and reconciliation events that happened across our country. I believe it is time for us to reconcile with the truth and i feel that one of my truths is that as indigenous people we are often overrepresented in a variety of systems: the legal and justice systems, health care, and social service systems.
I find it disheartening that substance use has long been viewed as a criminal and moral issue rather than a health issue. In reality, it is an unpleasant fact that has touched many families. Mine included. I feel it is here that a tectonic shift must take place…treating someone who uses substances must be seen as a bonified health issue.
Because I currently see a disconnect between all systems with class and race often playing a role in how we view substance use or addiction. I feel that people who use substances should be viewed as just that people rather than offenders. Law enforcement and public health should have the same goal of wanting people to do good and stay alive to make a different choice on another day.
We are desperately in need of supervised injection services to help decrease the high number of overdoses we are seeing in communities across our country. When substances are used inside of a health setting and substance use becomes decriminalized people then come into contact with nurses, social and peer support workers that are there to provide them with voluntary drug tapering strategies, education, advocacy, health and social interventions available to them if they so choose. I see a valuable opportunity for us to take a stand on the forefront of this overdose crisis, and provide people using substances with services that will prevent further loss of life due to overdose. Because as it was said in Ottawa at the Canadian drug future forum: ’’the drug supply in Canada has gone toxic’’!
We should all know by now that we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis. We know that mental health factors contribute to substance use and that mental health sufferers are twice as likely to use substances that being said i feel that we need to look around the country and maybe even the world to see what’s working well and look at applying some of those ideas here and now (coughs-like Portugal’s model). Because the death toll rise in spite of current actions and at best a glacial pace is what things seem to be moving forward at. What evidence based things can we look too… where other interventions have failed heroin assisted therapy has had great successes Portugal even greater successes.
At ungass2016- 22 governments from around the world advocated for all drug decriminalization here is a small part of a statement from the idpc- international drug policy consortium-…” the gold standard of decriminalization is the removal of all punishment for drug use and the provision of voluntary health and social services ’’the sad reality is our current drug laws and policies have failed us. I believe herein lies an opportunity for us to show some leadership.
We need to show good models and then scale them up building an evidence base that demonstrates what works safely and effectively to save lives …because the government doesn’t hold all the answers and neither do we. This is why evidence must form the basis of all policies in place. I feel that we are at a crossroads where I think we must acquire the knowledge to build upon societal support to expand upon these services.
I urge you to push pass ideology, prejudice, and fear to step up to help our citizens. Let’s roll up sleeve take bold steps and help people, so no more families have to lose a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a sister or brother. Or in my family’s case an aunt and two cousins.
We need our governments to make evidence based decisions when it comes to drug policies. We need progressive evidence based policies. We need you to take the ideology out of it and only make evidence based decisions. I do believe we need an integrative knowledge exchange about best practices from across our country, and maybe even the world, we need support from all levels of government to help build upon this knowledge base so we may integrate and facilitate the effective use of this knowledge into practice. To the provincial & federal government i implore you. The evidence is there use it!!
On February 21 2017, a first national day of action was held across Canada by CAPUD to demand concrete actions to put an end to the war on drugs, remove barriers to health care, and implement policies that are informed by real life experiences of people who use drugs and Service providers. At that time, we met Government Officials to share Our thoughts with them and forward our list of CAPUD’s federal demands: in no particular order they are
- End the War on Drugs. In the short-term, decriminalize possession of all drugs. In the long term, full legalization and regulation of drugs.
- Grant immediate exemptions to all supervised injection service (SIS) applicants and/or define them and any future SIS as health services implemented solely by provincial authorities;
- Create a specific harm reduction initiative as part of the new Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, to support, expand and adequately fund harm reduction programs and strategies including explicit funding for the development of drug user-based organizations and advocacy groups.
- Remove barriers and increase access to opioid substitution therapy including access to prescription heroin.
- Implement harm reduction in prisons: needle exchange programs, increasing access to opioid substitution therapy and continuation after release
We should be identifying smart policies and implementing them to apply solutions to save lives. I can honestly tell you the vast majority of deaths I am seeing are related to illicit drugs, Fentanyl and Carfentenyl, and now even cocaine and methamphetamine can contain these. I can also honestly tell you that i have attended numerous funerals in the past few months. And i am now at a point where I have to acknowledge my own personal experiences with tackling issues related to my own mental health, because as of lately I feel as though I’ve been plagued by depression. Thoughts and memories of those we’ve lost leave me holding on to hope, hoping those who hold the power can and will do something to help. Now is the time to remember, it is also the time to act!
Hyi hyi ..thank you
Manitoba MSTH leaders Chris Dobbs and Arlene Kolb were invited to attend a meeting with the Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott in Winnipeg on July 22, 2017. Here is Chris Dobbs' summary of the event.
With over 30 people in attendance the moms nervously waited their turn to speak to the Minister. Arlene started with a question: "You want to know what I want? I want my son back! All I have is his hat, and his ashes, I smell his hat everyday to be close to him", as she picks up the hat and smells it.....peoples eyes welled up with tears. She stated clearly that we need to stop the stigma and we need treatment. I then spoke about Adam and who he was, and that he was not his addiction. I talked about our lack of resources and how shameful it is that we have no medical detox or no protocol for our Doctors and emergency health services, no protocol to really help those suffering with the disease of opiate addiction. I went on to read a letter my son wrote, a letter begging me to help him and not give up on him, and that he was scared. Not a dry eye in the house. I questioned whether anyone would put their child in the Main Street project, the only available place to detox. A place filled with both people addicted to alcohol and those addicted to drugs. You bunk up with six others, all sick and one was even a drug dealer. Everyone shook their heads. I also asked Max Waddell, from Winnipeg Police Service, as he spoke to picking up persons who are overdosing, what happens to them, what do you do with them? All they can do is take them to ER, check them send them on their way. I asked Minister Geortzen about the recent approval of suboxone and what Doctors are administering it. He admitted that this is a problem, getting Doctors trained to work with suboxone .
Lastly, I related my own experience of 14 years ago, a heart attack. I mentioned that we have protocols and I was treated immediately, given medicines, monitored in hospital for a week, sent to rehabilitation, counselling and follow up every six months which continues to this day! We need protocols to treat people dependant on substances who seeking help. They should not be treated differently than anyone else in the health system.
Helen and I had a tour of the newly completed Foundry last night!
The initial presentation on arrival in the foyer is an atmosphere that is inviting and calm. Green, turquoise and blue hues have a relaxing effect, plus there is an abundance of light creating an airy atmosphere, not an enclosed, (institutional), feel.
The Foundry will be the home to a dozen different agencies. The key, of course, is to provide early intervention, diagnosis and support before serious, chronic issues arise. There are several physician exam rooms for GP's to assess physical /sexual health of the youth. To date, four General practitioners have committed to part time hours. The facility will also house psychiatrists, counsellors, paediatricians, RN's and various support personnel.
The space is comprised of counselling rooms, dictating stations (for consultations), staff lunch rooms, two conference rooms and a family room.
The Foundry also has an amazing kitchen area for youth-it will also be used to teach cooking classes- promoting healthy independence. Staff will move into their offices and work spaces slowly throughout July, and will see their patients at the Foundry. August will slowly transition to walk In Traffic and referrals. (From schools, physicians, parents, walk ins).
The Foundry mandate that a slow/soft opening will allow them to ensure all protocols are in place and properly executed. They truly want this to be perfectly deployed and a positive experience for all.
Who is the Foundry?
The Foundry is a "one stop" service provider for youth age 12-24. A variety of services will be available to youth, all under one roof.
Family support, youth and family navigation Services, health care, sexual health, mental health counselling, substance misuse counselling, housing support, employment assistance, free courses and groups and specialized services!!!!!!
All services are free and confidential.
Making mental health a priority for our youth not only aids them and their families, but creates strong supportive communities where are children are valued.
I am optimistic and excited to see the Foundry lead the Okanagan, and the Interior-perhaps even the province and the country, in promoting this service for our kids!
I believe they will have a strong voice In educating the general populace and in decreasing, or eliminating, stigma and shame.
The Foundry staff are a strong, youthful, innovative and committed team!
I am excited to watch them develop, morph and grow!
ALL LIVES MATTER
TOGETHER WE WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
This is the short story of our only child, our son Jordan, his life and his death. It is also about hindsight. Hindsight can be a learning tool—for me and perhaps for you, too.
Jordan was a happy baby, inquisitive and active. As a newborn, he slept only about 10 hours in 24. On the day he was eight months old, he walked for the first time, to the delight of all. He didn’t stop challenging himself physically all his life.
He never required a lot of sleep, which was tiring for mom and dad, but his young life was full of travel, adventure, joy, friendships and family. We felt blessed to have such smooth sailing. The part-time daycare and preschool Jordan attended from age two until public school suited his high energy.
We made an informed decision to keep Jordan in the Montessori kindergarten an extra year as he was so rambunctious. His focus on tasks was not thought by his teachers to be at a Grade One level. But he was happy and sociable. He loved his teachers, and the varied structure suited him.
Jordan continued to be funny and popular and became a leader of his peers. This sounds lovely, but there was also a worrisome side. His antics disrupted the classroom, his reading skills were below average, and he was not a team player. By Grade 5, an older and wise teacher suggested we have him tested for ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia. He had low levels of both. We employed a tutor, and his teachers gave him the time to run around the school when he needed to release some energy. His report cards were just above average, so while we were concerned, we weren’t overly worried.
Other quirks seemed small at the time—Jordan couldn’t wear socks that had a seam in them, he couldn’t eat an apple that wasn’t quite the right texture, he would sit on the floor of the shower and let the warm water run over him until we intervened or the hot water ran out. There were smells that he couldn’t tolerate. He had episodes of rapid blinking that he couldn’t control. He had occasional brief rages at home that consisted of yelling in intense frustration over a seemingly insignificant thing. Again, while we were concerned, we didn’t think professional help was needed.
And then, high school! We all know the pitfalls and perils of these years. Kids from our small southern Gulf Island in BC take a water taxi to attend the Gulf Islands Secondary School on one of the larger islands. This meant that I could not be as involved with the school, and sometimes Jordan had to stay overnight with another family. Up until this point, Jordan, his dad Carl and I had been close and happy. But now we began to see changes. Jordan started to party with his friends—typical except for the copious amounts of pot and alcohol that he and his friends consumed. He was open about this with us, and occasionally took us up on our offer of the no-questions-asked ride home.
But you can’t keep a teenager locked up because you think he might get drunk or smoke pot. You can’t follow him around or text him every 15 minutes to find out what he is up to. I did what I could: I talked to him about how pot affects the developing brain, and about the dangers of alcohol addiction. I printed out articles and left them on his bed. We watched him closely, and we hoped that this was just a stage he was going through.
But it was not. By age 19, Jordan was an alcoholic and a cigarette smoker. He was also using cocaine. He soon asked us for help; we got him into a rehab facility for what was to be a three-month stay. He walked out after six weeks, declaring that six weeks was all he needed, that he was clean and sober and could stay that way.
He was wrong, as many of us are at the age when we think we know everything.
The next three years were torture for my husband and me. Jordan bounced around from our community to Vancouver to the Cayman Islands, to Ottawa, to Mexico and home again. He was on an adventure laced with drugs and alcohol. He was dealing drugs. He loved the fast lifestyle, the cool clothes and being the life of the party. Miraculously, he was never arrested.
Throughout this period, we know, from anecdotes told by his friends after his death and from what we already knew about our son, that Jordan remained kind and connected. He championed the underdog, he helped those less fortunate than himself, and he loved children and animals. And he stayed connected to us, by phoning, texting, even bursting through the back door unexpectedly. But we saw the effects of drugs and alcohol—in his eyes, in his thin body, in the lies he told us about money or his whereabouts. He was constantly texting, and we now know that he was “conducting business”—dealing drugs.
Jordan returned to our small community in his twenty-second year with a steady girlfriend, and he started his own small business. We were hopeful, although we knew substance abuse was still a problem. Then Jordan injured his back on a job, and our family doctor prescribed the highly addictive opioid oxycodone. A few weeks had passed before Jordan told me that the doctor had prescribed him a hundred pills. I was shocked; I made an appointment with the doctor and told him that Jordan was at risk of addiction. But because Jordan was over the age of consent, and because the doctor seemed not to consider my advice, I had no say in Jordan’s care. This was the beginning of the end—and the first failure of the medical system in Jordan’s case.
Over the next six months, the doctor prescribed oxycodone in higher and higher doses. Jordan became completely focused on obtaining and using this drug. We watched helplessly as his business declined, his girlfriend struggled, and he developed other health and sleep problems.
I spoke to the doctor again and told him that Jordan was now addicted to the drug. The doctor became angry and defensive. He decided to stop prescribing the drug, but he did not offer any support for withdrawal and recovery from addiction. Looking back, I believe he was simply ignorant in the matter. One cannot just “quit.” Withdrawal is so painful that some find it impossible to go through. The physician’s ignorance and oversight was the second failure of the medical system.
At this point, now firmly addicted to opioids, Jordan began buying “Oxy” on the street. He needed more and more money, and slid right back into the world of drug dealing.
Finally he realized that life had become untenable. He knew he needed to enter a detox facility, and we helped him get there. After 12 days, he emerged clean of opioids but still faced a very painful withdrawal. We could find no post-detox support, no physician willing to prescribe suboxone (a drug that Jordan had researched and which is now widely and successfully used in withdrawal and recovery), and no psychiatrist who could take on Jordan’s case. This lack of post-detox support was system failure number three.
Seven weeks after he left the detox facility, and in a bad state of withdrawal, Jordan relapsed. On February 4, 2014, at the age of 25, our only child died alone of an accidental overdose.
In hindsight, we can now see that all the little things—the high energy, the quirkiness, the sensitivities, the risk-taking, the problems with focus and dyslexia, Jordan’s overcompensation for hidden anxiety—led our son to self-medicate. But we couldn’t put it all together at the time. And now he is gone.
As I now advocate for drug policy changes in government, I understand that the medical system was not ready for the recent sudden increase in addiction and overdose. Doctors have historically received almost no training in addictions and recovery, and that is now changing. Opioid prescription and management is becoming an integral part of medical school.
Advice is a hard thing to hand out: every child is different. I can only say to other parents, Be aware, be non-judgemental, and give your children credit for being intelligent. Try to leave anger out of discussions. Your children need your wisdom, not your fear. And they need your love. They really need your love. They also need information on how to avoid dangerous drugs, and they need to know that if they do decide to use drugs and alcohol, they should never use them when they are on their own. Make sure your child’s school is including talks on drug safety in the curriculum.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but it can be a hard thing to live with. I hope that our hindsight can be your foresight.
Leslie McBain, May 2017
If I use the word, addict, many minds will conjure up images of a filthy toothless, dead eyed, man or women hiding in a back alley with a needle in their arm or begging for a few dollars on a street corner.I tell my story as a mother with lived experience to alter that image, to share the human side of drug misuse. To encourage you to believe although they have made a few bad choices, they do not choose this way of life. No one aspires to the living hell of addiction.
I have lost two sons to overdose. I cannot even begin to tell you about living life without your children, long nights laying awake, wishing apon wish to see them, hear them, hug them. The day after day reality that this will never happen.
My boys stories are quite different. Rian after 8 years of abstinence was hit by a truck while driving his motorcycle. He sustained horrific injuries to his leg. For three years, many surgeries,and countless prescription drugs, he battled chronic pain, depression and anxiety.
On August 21,2011, Rian died alone in his bed of respiratory failure due to an overdose of narcotics and benzodiazepines. I found him the following morning.
Tyler’s story is more relevant to the current opioid epidemic. Ty was living a charmed life. He was smart, witty, industrious, athletic, extremely funny and totally fearless. He had startling good looks and things came easily to him. He was a true adventurer. He climbed and went scuba diving in the most amazing mountains and waters in the world. He loved to travel and eventually settled in Thailand where he quickly picked up the language and soon had built himself a successful business and a happy life. Here he fathered his first child, Mac.
Tyler was caring and kind with a big soft generous heart . He was hailed a hero in the Canadian press for saving a drowning Thai boatman in the devastating Tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand on Boxing Day in 2004. That was not the first or the last time with no regard for his own safety, he saved another’s life.
After the Tsunami, with may friends lost and his business destroyed, Tyler brought his family home to Canada. We have no idea what impact that Tsunami had on Tyler’s mental state, but thought he was exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress. Starting over again was not easy, but Ty adapted quickly and in no time had his own masonry business.
In 2010, Tyler ruptured his a chillies playing football.. He underwent surgery and was sent home with a prescription of Oxycontin. With all the other components most likely in place, he developed a dependency on opioids. Tyler did not cope well with Rian’s death. Shortly after, his drug abuse escalated to heroin, it was far cheaper and much easier to obtain than oxycontin.
As a family we were launched into the search for help. We spoke to physicians, psychiatrists, outreach workers, treatment centres, RCMP and even to members of the clergy. Along with drug misuse, mental health issues develop. Personally, I believe addiction and mental health issues are dance partners, who leads depends on the day and the circumstances. With large gaping holes in the system, there were no clear answers, no concurrent care,so our lives became riddled with trauma and fear.
Totally unqualified, the spare bedroom in our home now became an emergency room, a detox, a rehab, a homeless shelter, a jail cell and on the worst of days, a war zone. Countless nights I sat on the sofa with my son’s head in my lap and we both cried for the man he had once been, the one we longed to bring back. Supporting his addiction, Tyler broke his own moral code and his shame and self loathing only added to the relentless drive to use.
Although treatment centres were virtually impossible to access, Tyler tried a number of ways to become drug free. In December of 2016 he joined a 12 step program. On January 13, Ty returned from a recovery meeting. He was in high spirits, even optimistic. He came around my bed and taking me in a big bear hug, he told me how much he loved me and how he could not live without me in his life, he then did the same with my husband.
The next day we left for work, for the first time in ages he was sleeping peacefully and we did not wake him. At work that morning I received an e-mail from an old friend of Rian’s. I had not spoken to Betty in well over a year, but she wrote, I am not sure what compels me to write to you today, I needed to let you know I feel Rian’s spirit so strongly and feel he is right there beside you.
As I left work that day, a fire engine with sirens blaring roared around me into on-coming traffic and flew up Pandosy Street. I ended up following that truck and when it stopped in front of Tyler’s ex-wife’s apartment, my heart plummeted.
I was forced to remain in the hallway outside the apartment as first responders worked feverishly to re-start my son’s heart. Finally they let me in and for the second time I layed down with my dead boy and whispered things in his ear I knew he could no longer hear.
I will never know what triggered Tyler to use that day, he died from a pure fentanyl disguised as heroin overdose. I try to convince myself that Rian did come to guide his brother to a safer happier place.
In a text to me a few weeks before he died, Ty wrote, Mom I just need you to know. It took me weeks to figure out it”s meaning and will haunt me until I die. What he wanted me to know was that he loved us all more than enough, but alone without the appropriate help, he knew he could not win this battle. Our constant messaging, well if you only wanted to stop, if you would just try, were so damn far off the mark. The standard advice of, he needs to hit rock bottom, or you need to practice tough love….I now see as utterly ridiculous. If we do not see the total destruction of ones life, the loss of family and friends, the inability to hold a job or support oneself, the never ending quest to stick a needle in your arm two or three times a day, just to escape your sad reality for a few hours is not rock bottom, we are blind. and as far as tough love,well the toughest love you will ever see is that of a mother trying to save her addicted child.
In February of 2016, I became a member of Moms Stop The Harm MSTH is a network of Canadian mothers and families whose loved ones have died from substance misuse. Our network calls for an end to the failed war on drugs. We envision a new approach based on reducing harm, where people who use drugs are treated with respect, compassion and support.
I am often asked, how do you do it, keep going, keep advocating. I do it for Rian and I do it for Tyler. I do it for Tyler’s children, for surely with their short history they are at high risk for mental heath and drug misuse. I do it to reduce the shame and stigma that surround addiction. To bring awareness and perhaps prevention. To help society recognize that these are medical issues, not moral failings. To have you all see it can happen in the best of families to the nicest people.
I can only imagine what you as emergency physicians are faced with on a daily basis. Hopefully my message will stay with you and remind you, they are not here by choice and that they have a Mother waiting fearfully for you to do what she has not been able to, for you to save her child. Whatever you are to learn here today, I implore you to implement it quickly. As you know, recent statistics show that in 2017 we are on track to lose 1300 people in our province to overdose.
Let’s abolish the stigmatizing word, addict. Let’s see them all as suffering human beings and let’s try without judgement to help them.
Whistler, BC, June 3, 2017
It’s hard to imagine that a year has passed since May 21, 2016, when I received the news that is every parent’s worst nightmare. I was told over the phone by the RCMP that my only child, Robby, had passed away from an overdose.
He was only 24, and a week later we learned from the coroner that he had died from an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Losing a child to an overdose is no different than losing a child to a disease such as cancer, or to a vehicle accident, or violence. You have joined a club that you never planned or wanted to be part of. Suddenly, the empathy you have felt for other parents’ losses over the years has become a real and tangible thing in your own life.
Your heart, mind and body are shocked into accepting the reality that your child will no longer walk through your door, sit at family dinners, send you daily texts, or share their hopes and dreams for their future. The pain of losing a child is like no other. I’ve experienced losses in my life — my grandparents, my parents and an ugly divorce — but nothing in life prepared me for this kind of pain.
What is different about losing a child to an overdose? It’s the layers that unravel after your child is gone. Every part of your being as a parent yearns to protect your child starting at that glorious moment of birth. You have invested years supporting him through his struggles and have tirelessly worked through many challenges, advocating for supports and services — ever hopeful for recovery, ever hopeful for your child’s wellness.
You find your mind reviewing every conversation you had with your child. What didn’t I say? What could I have done more of? Why didn’t I sense something was wrong?
After losing Robby, I felt compelled to connect with other families who have experienced a similar loss. I joined Moms Stop the Harm, a Canada-wide network of moms and families who have all lost someone to an overdose. Sadly, each week we welcome new members as fentanyl leaves behind its deadly wake of deaths across our nation. I bravely share Robby’s story, and I play whatever role I can in supporting a call to action in light of this overdose crisis.
One year later, and the deaths due to fentanyl continue at an unprecedented rate. Despite initial measures implemented by our government, there is little change in the monthly statistics. It is the recreational users and those like my son, who use substances in the privacy of their homes, who are making the headlines each week.
Clearly, the initial measures are not affecting these individuals; this speaks volumes as to what is lacking in our approach to addiction. Clearly, it will take a brave and bold political will to stem the heartbreaking loss of so many individuals in our province, and our nation.
Countries such as Portugal have led the way for us. The evidence is there to guide those who delegate funding to this issue. This aspect of addiction really is about priorities. So what is my dream for the future?
- Our approach to addiction needs to change from a criminal-justice focus to a public-health approach. Individuals struggling with addiction have the right to proper medical care and deserve the same level of support and treatment options as anyone else.
- Free access to naloxone in all provinces.
- Early identification, intervention and prevention supports (mental health and addiction) must be developed at a middle/high school level to better support educators, families and youth.
- Medically supervised drugs such as heroin should be approved to improve the health and safety for those with long-term drug-addiction challenges.
- The stigma around drug addiction must end. Uneducated and uninformed opinions only serve to prevent people from getting the help they need. Overcoming stigma can be a major step forward in a person’s journey toward recovery.
What is it like to lose a child due to overdose? You go forward in life because you really don’t have a choice. It’s not about bravery or coping well. Like other bereaved parents, you soon recognize that you will carry this pain for a lifetime.
Time does not make the empty space less empty. You learn to pick up the pieces and move forward, but your life will never be the same.
Victoria, BC, April 24, 2018
A coalition of B.C. families whose loved ones have died from substance use are calling on provincial party leaders to commit to fully investing revenue generated from the taxation and regulation of cannabis into substance use prevention and treatment.
In an open letter delivered to party leaders today, the family groups requested that 100 per cent of tax revenue received by the province from the sale of cannabis and after regulatory expenses are accounted for be directed to address the public health emergency declared last April in response to substance use overdoses and deaths.
“Canada’s plan to tax and regulate the adult use of cannabis will create a new source of revenue that can and must be invested by the province to address substance use,” the letter states.
The federal government recently introduced legislation that would tax and regulate the adult use of cannabis in Canada. The amount of tax revenue that would be generated is unknown, but a report published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2012 found that the cannabis market in B.C. alone could be worth $500-million annually.
“The opioid epidemic and the problems of addiction and drug related death in general are a set of incredibly complex problems. There is no one solution. All of the solutions lie in evidence-based research and concrete actions. We have the human resources to do this – what we need is the money. Net tax revenue from cannabis sales is where the new money is. It must be used in solving problems of substance use.”
Leslie McBain - Moms Stop The Harm
Leslie is the mother of Jordan Miller, who died of overdose on February 4, 2014
“Today’s fentanyl crisis is just the tip of an iceberg which has been growing for many years. From Grief to Action was founded as a group of parents and family members of people struggling with addiction to drugs in 1999 when the then-coroner was calling drug deaths a medical emergency. We have been working ever since to increase the amount of prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation available in this province. Although some things have improved we still have month-long waiting lists for treatment, a woeful lack of access to psychiatric expertise, a complete lack of services for concurrent disorders, and a health care system where addiction is the bottom of the list for funding.”
Nichola Hall - From Grief to Action
Nichola has two sons who have been on methadone for several years and are still struggling with addiction issues
“It would be grossly irresponsible for the provincial and federal governments to not allocate the taxes received from the sale of legal marijuana to the care and treatment of our substance users. There is no better way to commemorate the lives of the many sons and daughters we have loss due to the opioid crisis than wisely allocating this revenue.”
Jennifer Woodside - Voice of the Family
Jennifer is the mother of Dylan, who died of fentanyl overdose on April 4, 201
“The fentanyl crisis has affected my family dearly. I lost my 20-year-old son in March 2016 and we lost my youngest son's girlfriend exactly five months later in August 2016 to a fentanyl overdose. Immediate funding is urgently required in order to provide treatment options for those who are addicted. We do not have the luxury of time to wait because the fentanyl addiction will kill those people waiting to get treatment and help.
Michelle Jansen - The Brandon Jansen Foundation
Michelle is the mother of Brandon, who died of overdose while in rehab
Leslie McBain, Pender Island, BC
From April 4 to 6, 2017, I was in Ottawa to attend the Drug Futures Forum, a conference around the topic of how drug policy might and should look in ten years’ time. Many of the attendees and many of the speakers are known to me as the Canadian network of people working for harm reduction measures is relatively small. But they are a powerful and educated bunch.
Because the scene around illicit drugs is so very dire right now, much focus was on the immediate situation. It seems that everyone knows that we need to pursue decriminalization, accessible prescription heroin, safe consumption sites, legalization and regulation of cannabis as well as eventually all other drugs.
Also, it is agreed that we need further research in all areas. The problem is convincing the legislators to change policies to reflect what we know to be true. This necessitates high level research, which in turn takes funding. I was able to meet privately with Health Minister Jane Philpott as well as ADM Hilary Geller and MP Elizabeth May. Each meeting had a similar outcome. These legislators and politicians are on board with harm reduction, but feel that the Canadian electorate is still immersed in the stigmatized and ill-informed thinking about addiction and people who are drug dependent.
Speaking on behalf of all of us, I suggested a national anti-stigma campaign, and on Lorna Thomas’s idea of creating a grief support system for families who have lost loved one. The Minister was interested in both. I will continue to be the polite but persistent squeaky wheel.