Esquimalt teen Heather McLean died from a suspected overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine on Easter Sunday, just weeks before her 18th birthday.
“We’re not sure where she was or who she was with. The police haven’t told us,” said her stepmother, Tamsin Stratford.
The circumstances of her death are still being investigated.
McLean was a Grade 12 student at Esquimalt High School. This was supposed to be her graduation year.
“She was amazing. So smart. Up until 14, she was an honour-roll student who loved dance,” Stratford said.
McLean fell behind in recent years. She skipped school, drank, did drugs with her friends, and had been couch-surfing for the past few months.
The 17-year-old was fairly open with her family about her drug use. They constantly worried and warned her about the risks.
“She sat there with a straight face and said: ‘Don’t worry. I know who I’m getting drugs from. I pay $20 extra to make sure there’s no fentanyl,’ ” Stratford said. “I almost fell off the couch. She did not get the risks at all. And if an intelligent kid like her didn’t get it, what about other kids?”
More than 60 people have died from illicit drug overdoses on the Island already this year. In all of 2016, 120 people died on the Island and 922 across B.C. Illicit drug overdoses were declared a public health emergency in the province over a year ago.
The B.C. Coroners Service said this week that cocaine is the drug most prevalent in overdose deaths. The chief coroner said fentanyl, a powerful, cheap opioid often mixed into cocaine, is fuelling the overdose crisis.
“You can’t just say to a kid: ‘Don’t do drugs,’ because that doesn’t work. You have to tell them you don’t want them to and how they can be safe,” Stratford said.
She broke down as she spoke about how she had wanted to get her stepdaughter a naloxone opioid antidote kit to keep in her purse.
She said she would like to see more education in schools about the risks of drugs use and was heartened to hear a downtown pharmacy offers free tests for fentanyl and free naloxone kits and training.
Alain Vincent specializes in addiction treatment at STS Pain Pharmacy on Cormorant Street. He said anyone can come in to have their drugs tested for fentanyl.
“It could be kids going to concerts or casual drug users who just want to make sure of what they have,” Vincent said. The strip test takes about four minutes and has shown fentanyl in everything from cocaine and crack to ecstasy and methamphetamines.
Vincent asks each person to fill out a research survey and posts a picture of drugs that test positive for fentanyl on Twitter to raise awareness.
“The only problem is it doesn’t tell us the concentration,” he said. This is why he has teamed up with researchers at the University of Victoria to create a fast, low-cost device that measures fentanyl in drugs. A prototype should be ready next month.
The provincial and federal governments have invested millions in treatment beds, research, overdose prevention sites and naloxone distribution over the past year. Advocates say this has helped save many lives — especially among street-entrenched drug users.
But the coroners service and health officials say the overdose death numbers are not slowing down and the crisis is far from over. The most at-risk drug users are men between the ages of 30 and 49. The majority of overdose deaths happen indoors and in homes.
Kelly Taylor said she was shocked to find out her best friend died from a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose at a Gorge Road hotel on March 26.
“I can’t imagine him ever taking anything knowing it had that [fentanyl] in it. He loved life,” Taylor said.
Jeff (his family does not want his full name used) was 50 years old and well loved in Parksville where he lived. He was a fisherman, working on a docked boat in Victoria.
“He loved muscle cars, his friends and animals. He loved to cook,” Taylor said. They had been friends since their teens.
“The night it happened, he was out for dinner, drinking coffee,” she said. Her friend was found dead alone the next morning.
“He liked to party but he was recreational. … I can’t see him buying anything from someone he didn’t know.”
Both Taylor and Stratford want to see more awareness about safe drug use, especially among recreational and party users who might think they are not at-risk.
Esquimalt High School principal Tammy Renyard said the school has reached out to students and parents to offer support after news of McLean’s death spread on social media.
“We continue to educate students about the impact of drugs and drug use,” she said.
Friends and family of Heather McLean are invited to gather on April 27 to celebrate what would have been her 18th birthday.
The event is at 4 p.m. at Saxe Point Park.
Read the Times Colonist’s National Newspaper Award nominated series on the overdose crisis: Fentanyl on the Frontlines