Family and friends gather to remember loved ones who died of overdose

Janice Walker tried to hold back tears Tuesday as she lit a candle for her son who died of a drug overdose.

Walker, 47, lost her middle child, Joe, on Dec. 11, 2016. He was 25. He experimented with drugs at age 14 and became a high-functioning addict until an opioid prescription for dental surgery spurred his decline. He couldn’t live with the pain of addiction. He was in recovery the year he died, then relapsed.

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Walker said her son researched what he was doing to his brain and body.

“It broke his heart and terrified him, but then, like a flick of the switch, that urge to use became greater than all reason, all logic, all sense and he’d be gone again.”

She tried tough love, and then pure love when she believed her son’s death was inevitable.

Sitting in a circle at Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday, as light streamed through the stained glass windows, almost 40 parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who had lost a loved one to a drug overdose rose to light a candle.

It was a memorial to bring hope and remembrance, but there was some solace in the common heartache and loss.

One woman lit a candle for all the rest, saying her son has three times been revived from drug overdoses.

According to B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, more than 4,000 British Columbians have died since the start of 2016 as a result of a toxic illicit drug market.

“These tragic deaths continue despite the many valuable harm-reduction measures initiated in response to the declaration of a provincial public health emergency in 2016,” Lapointe said.

Black-market fentanyl is now detected in more than 85 per cent of post-mortem toxicology results, demonstrating the unmanageable risk of an illicit market, she said.

“Recognizing that most of those who die do so alone, efforts to address stigmatization and isolation are underway, and support for a health-focused response to substance use continues to grow,” Lapointe said.

Moms Stop the Harm advocate Leslie McBain, whose son died of an overdose in February 2014, said the province’s expected support of decriminalization of personal amounts of drugs will be the most important step forward in the fight against opioid overdose deaths since a public health crisis was declared three years ago. “It’s not the biggest step we can take, but it’s a really good one,” McBain said.

“People who are using drugs or are addicted to drugs need the drug whether we like it or not.”

Stigmatizing drug users, giving them a criminal record, breaking up their families or firing them from their jobs is not a way to treat addiction, she said.

“It’s a health problem, but we don’t treat it that way.”

Walker would like to see more robust detox, treatment and recovery programs, but she also supports decriminalization as “part of the answer.”

She said people addicted to human-made drugs should not be further punished but helped.

“It’s those impulses, the pull to use — it’s the mental illness and the demons they struggle with,” Walker said.

“It’s almost like sending them to slaughter, not having anything there for them, because what’s the option?”

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry is expected to today throw her support behind decriminalization of drug use as one way to help stem deaths from the opioid crisis.

Across B.C., three to four people a day die from opioid drug overdoses, “which speaks to the complexity of what we’re dealing with,” Henry said Tuesday in an interview in advance of the memorial.

“There is no one single thing we can do to solve it, but there are many things that can be done and continue to be done.”

Under decriminalization, people who have controlled substances for personal use could be fined instead of given a jail sentence, or given access to the health care or social services system, Henry said.

“I think that is a really important step for trying to start those conversations, so people aren’t afraid of getting a criminal record or being incarcerated when they have issues with addictions,” she said.

Lapointe said ensuring access to a safe drug supply and eliminating ineffective criminalization measures will significantly reduce the risk to those in communities experiencing problematic substance use.

People continue to use drugs alone because of the stigma associated with drug use, Henry said.

“It’s affecting communities across our province — all social stratas, all economic stratas,” she said.

“We need to continue to address this and to recognize people who use drugs are our families and our communities and we need to address this with compassion.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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