There is a message on my work voice-mail from a few years ago, a message I come across now and then when cleaning out the system.
For some reason, I can never bring myself to delete that particular message, which may be the saddest call I have ever received.
It is a message from a mom in Kamloops. She called to inform me her son had died of an accidental drug overdose.
She called because she wanted me to know as we had been using a photo of her son being resuscitated from an earlier overdose to illustrate some stories on the public health emergency that has gripped this province for more than four years.
The photo was taken from afar. The identity of the victim was impossible to be known to a reader of this newspaper.
But she knew that was her son. She had seen the photo appear in these pages, viewing it as a powerful image warning of the dangers of the drugs that had wrestled her son from her.
The voice on the message speaks softly, almost in a whisper, and the cadence is verging on apologetic. I returned her call and we talked for a bit.
The story is familiar — too familiar to so many families in Kamloops and across B.C.
Her adult son had been fighting his addiction and, despite small victories here and there, he could never fully win the battle.
She found her son on the floor in the bathroom of her house. Later, she called me and left that message I cannot delete.
Last week, the latest opioid overdose statistics were released and, for the second straight month, B.C. set a tragic record for most overdose deaths in a month.
The 175 deaths in June surpassed the 171 deaths in May. Through the first half of 2020, B.C. and Kamloops are on pace to record more overdose deaths in a year than ever before.
More than others, I have noticed two specific responses to this ongoing crisis: frustration and desensitization.
When overdose deaths suddenly spiked in 2016 due to the influx of a cheap and deadly drug — fentanyl — that allowed dealers to increase their profit margin, the numbers were staggering and dominated the news cycle. More than four years later, with there being no end in sight to the deaths, the numbers have, for some, become numbing.
The statistics that initially shocked become standard to some, much like gangland slayings and terrorist attacks lose their shock value as they continue to occur.
But not for the mom who called me, nor for the family and friends of the 6,000 or so people who have died since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016.
What can be done?
It’s a question that has been asked since well before the crisis hit B.C. For every accidental overdose going back decades, family and friends asked: What can be done?
Treatment for addictions is paramount. Despite the rollout every few years of more beds for those needing treatment, and in spite of announcements like that of July 10 — when the provincial government said it will be providing $16 million for new addiction treatment and recovery beds — more are needed because there never seem to be enough.
Punishing the dealers is important. No, not the street-level sellers; they are often dealing with their own addictions. We need to deal seriously with the kingpins who peddle in death. A good first step would be to amend the Criminal Code and separate fentanyl from other Schedule 1 controlled drugs and substances, thereby giving judges tangible reasons to consider more severe sentences.
Finally, the federal government should do more than pay lip service to the increasing call from experts across the country to decriminalize drugs. It would create a safe supply, reduce stigma, save lives and money and prevent so much heartache.