Canada is one of the heaviest users of opioids in the world.
One of these, fentanyl, is changing the way a lot of people look at drug use in Canada, and it has created a shift in the drug game in this country and province.
Late in November, the health crisis this drug has caused in BC reached a peak with health organizations issuing dire warnings about the risk related to its use. On Vancouver Island, seven deaths due to the drug in as many days was enough for Island Health to issue an alert. During that time, Vancouver saw 494 calls to 911 for overdoses, although not all were fatal. The record-breaking number is being attributed mostly to fentanyl.
On Thanksgiving weekend, the statistics became personal for a Port Alberni family.
That weekend, fentanyl changed everything Port Alberni resident Norine Messer thought she knew about drug use by stealing the life of her boyfriend (whose name we are not using out of respect for his family).
Norine said before her boyfriend’s death, she would have said she was knowledgeable about drug use in the Alberni Valley. She knew her boyfriend had used drugs in the past, but she did not worry that it would ever affect their present life.
Both in their 40s, they enjoyed life and were starting to talk about a future together. Together for almost a year, it was a new and exciting time. Norine never suspected it would all come to an end because of a deadly opioid she knew little about.
“It’s awful. He was an amazing, caring, and loving man,” Norine said of her boyfriend. “We were just starting a wonderful life together. He was totally happy, and he didn’t want to die.”
But he did, after taking what he thought was cocaine, a drug he had used in the past and was familiar with. Unfortunately, it was not just cocaine. After his death, the autopsy revealed he had a small amount of cocaine in his system, and a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Now Norine wants to use her story as a lesson to others—if it could happen to her and her loved one, it could happen to almost anyone.
“It’s true, the safest answer is to never do drugs, but that is not reality,” she explains. Recreational drug use common in Port Alberni. “Fentanyl is dangerous because often you don’t know you’re getting it. It’s like spiking someone’s drink—they aren’t choosing to do such a strong drug, but still it can take their life.”
Norine’s boyfriend was like many people you meet in Port Alberni. He came from a really good family who loved him. He had a good job and was well respected professionally and personally. He liked to volunteer in the community. And, at times in his life, he used cocaine recreationally.
“We were together for eight months. I knew he had used and liked coke (cocaine), but it was not a regular part of his life,” she said. “We can try to fool ourselves, but cocaine is commonly used in Port Alberni and many people consider it a safe drug. Most adults have vices and the younger generations are doing hard drugs more and more these days. We need to talk openly about them and be honest and real about the risks and realities.”
On Thanksgiving weekend, Norine was out of town, and her boyfriend decided to “have a little party,” according to a friend. Before going out, he did what he thought was cocaine, and his night ended there. In the morning, Norine was expecting him at her house to do some work in the garden. When he didn’t show up, she got worried.
After trying his phone and hearing nothing, she decided to go to his house. With help from the RCMP, she eventually gained access to his house, and he was found dead.
Norine hopes by telling her boyfriend’s story it will make a difference for someone else’s loved one.
“There’s no fixing it after the fact,” she said. “It has to be about education and harm reduction.”
Fentanyl has been described as a health crisis in British Columbia.
So far in 2016, deaths related to fentanyl have increased threefold in British Columbia, according to statistics from the B.C. Coroner’s office. This office recorded 332 illicit drug overdose deaths from January to September with detectable levels of fentanyl. This is up from 112 in the same timeframe in 2015.
Although there are a lot of drugs in this province that can be harmful, what makes fentanyl particularly dangerous is that a very small amount is deadly and people often take it unknowingly.
Although the Fraser Valley Health Authority had the highest numbers (110), Vancouver Island was a close second with 75 deaths, just ahead of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority’s 71 deaths.
Until this happened to her boyfriend, Norine had heard stories of other overdoses in the community, what she didn’t realize was that it was in so many other drugs, including ones people think of as relatively harmless. Before this personal experience, she had assumed the overdoses were from heroin or other strong opioids.
“I’m pretty open with my kids about drugs,” she said. “We talk about it, and I thought we all understood the risks. I had no idea.”
She hopes that her story will make a difference. She said it is not safe to experiment or to do drugs, no matter what you have done in the past, because the game has changed.
Island Health warns that the best option is to avoid drug use altogether, but it is also important to know what to do in the case of an overdose. If you suspect someone is overdosing, first call 911. The next step is to provide rescue breathing. Following that, give Naloxone if it is available.
The organization also warns drug users to be safe if they are going to continue to use drugs. They suggest avoiding new drugs, and testing with a small amount first. Never use alone, and stagger your use with friends so someone can always respond if something goes wrong. If you are a regular user, carry Naloxone and have an overdose plan.
Norine believes that things would have ended differently if her boyfriend had not been alone that night. She says education and harm reduction are the only solutions.
“We need more options out there,” she warns. “This is a health issue, not just a crime issue. We need safe injection sites and kits made available for users.”
Norine doesn’t want other families and loved ones to go through what she is experiencing.
“The best thing I can do is not be silent. It’s hard to share my story, but if it saves someone else, it’s worth it.”
Norine says we also need to judge less and see that there are people in our community who struggle every day with addictions. They need our help.
“It’s taking really good people who have a lot to offer—everyone has value. If people were dying at the same rate from anything else, we would be up in arms demanding a solution.”
Heather Thomson is a freelance journalist in Port Alberni. This opinion piece originally ran online with Alberni Thrive.