‘Our kids are dying’: Family members, advocates reflect on 5th anniversary of B.C.’s overdose emergency

'Our kids are dying': Family members, advocates reflect on 5th anniversary of B.C.'s overdose emergency
Morgan Goodridge, left, was 26 when he died of a drug overdose. His family says something in the province needs to change before more young lives are lost.

Morgan Goodridge died eight days after his 26th birthday.

The young man was a big brother, athletic, loved music and could make people laugh. But his mother says when her son started using party drugs in his late teens, it eventually turned into an addiction — one that led to his death.

“You feel like you have a life sentence, you feel like your whole life is going to be filled with grief and sadness, you feel like you’re drowning,” said Morgan’s mother, Kathleen Radu.

Desperate to help save her son’s life, Radu said her family spent close to $80,000 on getting him treatment.

“Morgan wanted to beat his addiction more than anybody did,” she said.

But with no real health care system to deal with addiction and mental health in B.C., she said her son didn’t get the care he needed.

After relapsing multiple times, Goodridge died in a supportive recovery home from a toxic mix of fentanyl and carfentanil.

“I believe the government has blood on their hands, and it’s a bold statement, but children are dying, our kids are dying,” said Radu. “We’ve lost a generation. Look at the numbers, and they’ve sat on their hands and they’ve done very little.”

When British Columbia’s provincial health officer declared an emergency over the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response.

RELATED: B.C. to request federal exemption for drug decriminalization

Since then, more than 7,000 have died in “unnecessary” deaths, said Dr. Perry Kendall.

“If you look at the map of B.C., people are dying in every town and village in this province,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re not all people who are homeless…we have people who are employed, or unemployed, who have families and children. They are us,” said Kendall, who was B.C.’s public health officer from 1999 to 2018.

Annual deaths hit an initial peak of 1,550 in 2018 before dropping in 2019 and then surging to record numbers during the COVID-19 health emergency to 1,724 in last year.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe blamed deadlier street drugs for part of the rise. Almost one in five deaths in January involved extreme levels of fentanyl concentration. She also said COVID-19 was isolating people and they were dying alone.

Safe supply and drug treatment for those who want it should be the main focus now, Kendall said.

He credited both the former Liberal and current NDP provincial governments for moving addiction issues forward but said the spike in toxic drug deaths has become overshadowed by COVID-19.

“We aren’t treating the overdose crisis with the attention we ought to be giving it,” he said.

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, told a Surrey Board of Trade event Tuesday that COVID-19 has been hard on people who use drugs.

“The stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, and you have a terrible recipe for a surge in overdose deaths,” she said.

On Wednesday, the province announced new measures being taken to address the ongoing issue, including steps towards decriminalization.

According to the B.C. government, it will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the province, while boosting funds to expand overdose prevention services.

The government says decriminalization can help address the stigma that drugs have, removing the “shame” that can prevent people from reaching out for life-saving help.

The City of Vancouver recently submitted an application to Health Canada outlining that people should be allowed to carry a three-day supply of various drugs as it seeks to get a federal exemption to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs.

The B.C. government has made several commitments to helping drug users, with supervised consumption sites scattered across the province in addition to volunteer-run overdose prevention sites in many cities.

B.C. announced a safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives in 2020, with doctors and nurse practitioners given the ability to prescribe to those who use drugs.

But the provincial government could be doing more to help, said a woman who lost her son to an overdose and co-founded an advocacy group because of his death.

Leslie McBain, of Moms Stop the Harm, said she’s “beyond frustrated” that actions such as safe supply have yet to be pushed through to help drug users.

“Here we are, five years later with more deaths, no real, fulsome, safe supply of drugs for people who need them and still, the government seems to be doing research and writing up plans we never see,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

Jan Mahoney said the system also failed her son Michael, who waited months for a treatment bed but died a day after learning he got one.

Michael Mahoney died a day after he was told he would receive a treatment bed. (Submitted)

“He went downtown, bought what he thought was a dilaudid tablet and died of an overdose in his truck.

His body was found in his truck five days later.

Mahoney said her son pleaded for help at the Royal Jubilee Hospital emergency room several times, but was usually assessed and then sent home to wait.

“He would go back to trying to treat himself because he wasn’t getting any psychiatric care,” she said.

Corey Ranger, a registered nurse with Victoria’s Safer initiative, said he’s attended 48 overdoses in the past year, much more than in the previous years.

“It’s been completely overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the fifth-year anniversary and this is our first and most readily ignored crisis.”

Safer provides pharmaceutical drugs to people at risk of dying from a toxic drug supply.

The volatility of the street drugs makes it harder to resuscitate people when they overdose, Ranger added.

He said the provincial government needs to make decriminalization a priority.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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