1 family, 2 deaths, 18 years of B.C. drug policy failure | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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1 family, 2 deaths, 18 years of B.C. drug policy failure

Kathy Calder: ‘If you’re treating your most vulnerable this way, what kind of government are you?’
Image Credit: John Bonner
August 02, 2021 - 8:30 AM

It took Kathy Calder four years to put her sister Leanne Calder’s photo up on the wall after she died of a cocaine overdose in 2003.  Losing her younger sister nearly destroyed her, Calder said.

“I lost a piece of my face when she died. My heart was breaking so much that you could see it on my face.”

Now, nearly 18 years after Leanne’s death,  Calder has no idea when she’ll be able to face the pain of putting her  daughter’s portrait on the wall next to her sister’s.

Danielle Lucas died in May due to toxic drugs. The single mother of three was one of 160 people who died of toxic drugs in B.C. that month.

At 36, Lucas was just a year younger than her aunt when she died.

“Losing a child is a  completely different thing,” said Calder. Danielle was her husband’s daughter from a previous marriage, but Calder said she considered  Danielle her own from the moment she met her at age 12.

“It rips you. Your heart is literally broken, you can feel the ache in your chest,” she says. “And we’re losing kids every day.”

Calder says the province should have done  more to support people who use drugs and provide a regulated, safe  supply in the nearly two decades between the deaths of her sister and  daughter.

Instead, the family’s two losses a  generation apart are emblematic of how little things have changed, as  the drug supply in British Columbia has become increasingly potent,  unpredictable and toxic.

“It’s like nothing has happened,” Calder  said. “If you’re treating your most vulnerable this way, what kind of  government are you?”

Nearly a decade before Leanne died, the  alarm had been sounded on the risk of overdose deaths, particularly from  heroin and cocaine.

Personal possession of small amounts of  some drugs should be decriminalized, and a “medical model,” including  prescription heroin, should be pursued, B.C. chief coroner Vince Cain  wrote in a 1994 report on illicit narcotic overdose deaths.

“We have the problem, and we must do what we can about it, now,” he wrote.

Calder said her sister Leanne, who worked  in restaurants and at a golf course in Parksville on Vancouver Island,  was devoted to her eight-year-old daughter Savannah. She liked to party  and drank often, but Calder said she wasn’t aware her sister used other  substances.

Leanne certainly wouldn’t have met the  medical diagnosis of “substance use disorder,” which is currently  required to access prescription alternatives to street drugs.

The Calder sisters last spoke early on the  morning of June 30, 2003. Kathy didn’t know Leanne, who was divorced and  a single mother, was going to a party later that night.

Their brother found Leanne in a hot tub at  the party in Parksville just after midnight on July 1. The coroner’s  report, reviewed by The Tyee, found recent alcohol and cocaine use  caused her to lose consciousness and drown.

Calder was working as a  server at a local restaurant later that morning when her husband came to  tell her that her sister was gone.

She and her sister had plans for Calder to  move back to Vancouver Island from the Lower Mainland so they could camp  and fish and laugh together more often. “It knocked me so hard, I am  surprised I lived.”

Leanne had helped reunite Calder with her  husband, and Danielle’s father, Drew, just the year before. Having him  with her in the weeks and months after her sister’s death “saved her,”  Calder said, but she began depending on alcohol to cope with the grief  and loss.

She stopped drinking in 2011, and this September will mark 10 years in recovery.

A slow-motion emergency

Despite rising drug deaths, it wasn’t until  13 years after Leanne’s death that toxic drugs were declared a public  health emergency in B.C., as powerful opioids fentanyl and carfentanil  arrived.

Fentanyl has been present in 85 per cent of  toxic drug deaths in 2021 and 86 per cent the year before, up from five  per cent in 2012. And the pandemic saw use of carfentanil, up to 100  times more potent than fentanyl, skyrocket because it is smaller and  easier to transport through locked-down borders.

Benzodiazepines, a class of depressants,  are also increasingly present in opioids, creating a dangerous  combination that can increase a person’s risk of dying by stopping their  breathing.

These more potent mixes make it difficult  for anyone, even those who use regularly, to know what dose they are  taking. Many of the people dying each month in B.C. are not habitual  users, meaning their tolerance and knowledge of the supply is even  lower.

Carfentanil contributed to 60 deaths in 2020, and it has already killed 75 people this year, including Danielle Lucas.

Lucas was a loving mother to her three  young children as she struggled with alcohol dependence and issues in a  past relationship, said Calder.

In 2019, her oldest child went to live with  their father and her two youngest were taken into foster care. “It just  broke her,” Calder said, which was when she began to realize Lucas was  drinking again.

Calder doesn’t know when her daughter may  have started to use other substances, but she had never known her to try  anything else but alcohol.

“I think with losing her kids and COVID-19,  it really changed her patterns. Now you’re sitting around and not  seeing as many people. It kicked the crap out of everyone’s regular  routines and for her and so many others, inserted alcohol and drugs.”

Calder wishes her family’s pain on no one  but knows many more families will go through something similar unless  emergency action is taken.

She wants to see a safe, regulated supply  of drugs made available to anyone who needs it, more education for high  school students about how toxic the current drug supply is, and an  emergency-response style team of people to reach out to people like  Danielle who are in programs but still don’t have the support they need.

“The system failed her as well.”

Vancouver is currently applying for federal  permission to decriminalize personal possession of drugs, nearly three  decades since Cain’s call for the same.

And Minister of Mental Health and  Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said recently that details on an expanded  safe supply directive, promised before the September election campaign,  would come in a matter of weeks.

But as the guidance currently stands,  neither Leanne nor Danielle would have qualified for regulated options  because they did not have a diagnosed substance use disorder.

Calder did move to Vancouver Island. She  spends her days in Union Bay gardening, writing letters to government  and elected officials, speaking with fellow members of Moms Stop the  Harm and trying to communicate the grief the crisis has left her and her  family, and thousands of others, carrying.

There are other days where she can’t work  through the grief, days she spends taking long baths and letting herself  off the hook for anything she planned to do.

On those days she is most worried about her  sons, her friends, their families, and seeing the police walk up to her  door to tell her another loved one is gone.

“We’re losing daughters and sons and  sisters and brothers and mothers, and children are being left to live  with their grandparents,” Calder said.

“How much more can we take? Something should have been done a long time ago.”

— Originally published by The Tyee

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