'It is getting worse': The pain left behind as B.C.'s overdose crisis takes a record 165 lives in January
VANCOUVER -- Photos shared by Annie Storey show her son Alex with his arms wrapped around his young daughter, as the little girl smiles from ear to ear.
“She was in love with him. Absolutely,” Storey said. “He was starting to be a dad, which he really wanted to be.”
She said Alex was a kind soul, loyal, and fun. In childhood, he spent a lot of time in the outdoors, hiking and camping.
“He was always smiling,” Storey recalled. “He was a happy, happy kid.”
Storey said Alex’s birth motivated her to go back to school as a single mom, eventually becoming an accountant. In high school, he excelled at football, and Storey was at every game.
“He was a fantastic football player,” she said, and added he attended St. Thomas Moore, a private Catholic school, and played for on their team. “He was scholarship material, without question.”
Storey said in Grade 10, Alex was diagnosed with a learning disability, and switched schools.
“He had an injury, he wasn’t able to play as much, and so he quit school,” Storey said.
Alex eventually began working two jobs, but then suffered a devastating and traumatic loss.
“His best friend was murdered in 2011,” said Storey. “His childhood friend that he grew up with. We just saw him start to spiral at that point, downwards.”
Storey said when her son was about 20 years old, he was prescribed oxycodone after a car accident.
“Shortly after that, he started dating a girl who had a very serious oxy addiction, and that was just a nightmare,” she said.
Storey said they got Alex into a methadone program, but said it was a “difficult system to navigate."
“There were times that he would have to be there at 3 o’clock I think every second day to pick up his prescription,” she said. “But they would close early, and they wouldn’t give any notice. So he’d spend two days in withdrawal.”
Storey said her son ended up going to Ontario for a couple of months, and eventually quit the drugs on his own.
“He got off all of it, and he was doing fine,” Storey said, and added Alex also started working with a friend doing drywalling. But last year, things began to take a turn.
“I think probably since the pandemic hit, things started to slow down at work, we started to see anxiety and depression,” she said. “He suffered from PTSD as well, as a result of what happened to his friend, and it just started to get worse.”
Initially, Storey said things didn’t seem as bad as they had been before. He was still visiting, and seemed happy. But in November, which is the month when his friend was killed, she said he began to “spiral."
“He dropped about 25 pounds, he was having psychotic episodes,” she said. “We were just stunned because we were like, this is not like anything we’ve seen before.”
Storey said her son asked her for help finding a counsellor, and she ended up connecting with an addictions specialist earlier this year. She said the process of finding that help wasn’t straightforward.
“You’re literally googling, and you’re coming to a website that lists 15 resources, and you try to call them and they don’t answer the phone, or then they send you to somebody else,” she said. “There’s just nothing really readily available.”
Storey said she also found a private rehabilitation facility with an opening, but Alex wasn’t ready to go yet. However, they did have an appointment with the specialist.
“It was all phone call, you can’t go and see anybody right now. You can’t go face to face,” Storey said. “Which really is, I think, what you really need, is to be able to sit down with somebody...over the phone just isn’t the same.”
Storey said Alex missed the first appointment but scheduled another one.
“He kept talking about wanting to kick this,” she said. “He really felt like he could do it himself. He kicked it before, so he could kick it again. But there was no carfentanil involved last time. There was no poisoning of the drugs last time he struggled through this.”
On Jan. 18, just days before his 29th birthday, Alex died of an overdose at his home.
“When they did the toxicology report, we found out that there was carfentanil in his cocaine,” Storey said. “He had been taking Xanax for the anxiety he was having as well, and the mix of those drugs together are what killed him.”
Storey’s son was among 165 people who died in the province this January, which equated to about 5.3 every day. It’s the worst start to the year on record in the overdose crisis.
Testing also showed the drugs themselves are becoming even more toxic. Eighteen per cent of the deaths involved extreme levels of fentanyl, which is the largest number to date. Fourteen deaths involved the even more lethal carfentanil, which was the largest number since May 2019. Forty-nine per cent of the samples tested also detected the presence of benzodiazepines, including a drug called etizolam, which is not licensed in Canada. Combined with fentanyl, it increases the risk of overdose due to depressant effects on the respiratory system.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the findings point to the “absolute danger” of the illicit drug market.
“It is not a controlled market. It is a for-profit driven market,” she said. “Those buying substances really just have no idea what might be in the substance that they’re using, and they are, indeed, becoming increasingly toxic.”
Lapointe said the current drug supply chains are likely new ones that have been established following border closures during the first year of the pandemic, but added she feels a lot of what we’re now seeing is drug dealers looking to sell as much product as they can, for as much money as they can.
“There’s no doubt that the drug supply has become more toxic during the pandemic,” Lapointe said. “Whether that would have changed this dramatically regardless, we don’t know.”
Lapointe said there is virtually no community in B.C. that has not been touched by the ongoing public health emergency that was first declared by the province in 2016.
“We’re always hopeful that there will be positive progress, that fewer people will be dying, but there are some big gaps in the system that need to be addressed to really make that meaningful,” Lapointe said, and added while there is a shift towards approaching addiction as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue, “that’s a big ship to turn around."
Lapointe said using drugs alone is still a significant risk factor, given the toxicity of today’s illicit drugs.
“If somebody gets into trouble, they’re getting into trouble very, very quickly,” she said. “They need to have somebody there to provide naloxone, call for emergency help. Even professional emergency responders are having to provide somebody with several doses of naloxone to bring them around.”
Lapointe said there is no simple path for people with addictions to access the treatment they need.
“There is not one number you can call. Not every physician is willing to support somebody who’s experiencing problematic substance use. Access to safe supply is very ad hoc in this province, if that’s what somebody is seeking,” she said. “Even if they want treatment and recovery, there’s no easy route.”
Lapointe said there are often long waiting lists for those programs, and because so many are privately run, there’s no idea how many people take part, what kind of treatment they receive, and whether they’re successful or not. Its information the coroner’s service is trying to collect.
“We’re looking for patterns, and we’re trying to identify common gaps (so) that we can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future,” she said. ‘We know from our death review panels that the lack of accessible treatment, evidence-based treatment, is a huge concern...there’s really not a standard practice. There really is not any cohesive system of care in the province. For any other illness, there is (a) treatment standard.”
Storey said while many resources are centred in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, not everyone may be able to access them there.
“A safe drug supply would be great, but it has to be available to people like Alex,” she said. “Testing your drugs is great, but you have to have it available and accessible.”
Storey said there’s still a lot of stigma and judgement from people, and she wants them to understand addiction can affect anybody.
“They think it’s just happening to...people on the street, in the Downtown Eastside, and the homeless. It’s not,” she said, and added addiction isn’t something people should feel ashamed about, as it may stop them from seeking help. “These are your own kids that are going through this, and you may not even know they are.”
Storey has now connected with a group called Moms Stop the Harm, which is made up of families across the country who have lost loved ones, and advocates for changes in the approach to managing and treating addiction, including harm reduction. She said she’s also considering establishing a foundation or fund for children who have lost their parents to the overdose crisis.
“It’s not being recognized as the public health crisis that it is. It absolutely is, and it’s going to get worse. It is getting worse,” she said. “I can’t not speak about this, and I refuse to be ashamed for what my son was struggling with. He had a lot of tragedy in his life, in his young, short life. He doesn’t deserve to be shamed for the fact that he was prescribed oxy by a doctor for his back pain and it became a problem and an addiction.”
Storey also called for people to show compassion.
“It’s not something you can just stop, and you’re done for the rest of your life...you need ongoing support, and ongoing treatment, and ongoing therapy,” she said. “It just kills me to see the apathy, instead of the empathy. There’s just so much apathy in this country around what these kids are struggling with. It just rips my heart open.”
In a statement, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said she is “committed to finding even more ways to support and separate people from the poisoned drug supply."
“We are resolved to continue our work to add more treatment and recovery options, more services and supports for communities throughout B.C., and to work with the federal government to move forward on decriminalization,” she said. “At the same time, we are going to continue building the culturally safe, evidence-based system of mental health and addictions care that people deserve.”