Another Father’s Day, and I reflect on the kind of father my son Joseph was, and the gaping hole his death left in the lives of my beautiful grandsons.
In this photo are Joseph’s work boots, his baby shoes atop the bamboo urn containing his ashes, stardust. My youngest son poisoned by fentanyl in August 2016. A devastation for our family, multiplied by all preventable deaths before and since, for every other family affected.
Many of the people that are being slaughtered in this epidemic are men between the ages of 30 and 59. They are dying in their homes, at their work sites, coffee shop washrooms, in their cars, some dying alone because the stigma attached to substance use makes relapse shameful. Many of these men, of course, are fathers.
We know that the death of a parent has many long-term negative effects on children. The most immediate is the loss of the love and bond shared between parent and child and depending on the age of the child the inexplicability of the situation. Where is daddy? Where did he go? Children that have experienced parental loss also may have increased issues with mental health, impacts on their learning ability, possibility of post-traumatic stress, and the loss of the deceased parents social, economic and other resources.
I lost my mother when I was a young adult and even at that age the effects were devastating. Losing my son of course has been beyond bearable. Only 25, Joe packed a lot into his short life, overcame tremendous odds, put his life to rights again & again. Loving father of 2 boys, his sons were the light of his life. He was a loyal friend, immensely proud of his accomplishment at being a journeyman trades-person, well-liked by his colleagues.
He was a risk taker, adventurer, loved hiking, swimming, dirt-biking, fishing and spending hours in the forest. He loved animals, nature, rode horses, cuddled his dog, made music. He was already introducing these passions to his young sons.
He was just becoming the man he wanted to be in the months and days before his life was cut short. What would he have become? What gifts could he have brought to his children, to the world and how might he have changed it for the better? We will never know. All the lost potential, of all the sons and daughters, we will never know.
Joseph experienced trauma at a young age and that pain led him to seek relief. He was punished severely by our culture for the pain he endured.
Stigma reduced him to an “addict”. That stigma is literally killing our children. The illicit drug poisoning crisis has killed over 20,000 Canadians since 2016. Why isn’t this pressing issue? Why aren’t our politicians following the science, just as they so religiously follow COVID 19 directives.
Dr. Bonnie Henry is more than aware of what is needed to stem the tide of these preventable deaths from the toxicity in the illicit drug supply. In April 2019 she delivered the report Stopping the Harm calling for the decriminalization of people who use drugs.
“The report outlines how stigma leads many people who use drugs to hide their usage and creates barriers to using harm reduction and treatment services. Prohibition-based drug policies and strategies are significant contributors to the deep-rooted shame and blame associated with illegal drug use.
Evidence shows that criminalizing people who use drugs does more harm than good. Decriminalization is a way for law enforcement to help people living with addiction connect to the supports they need.”
Unfortunately, the recommendations from the 2019 report were not adopted at the time and many more lives have been lost needlessly as a result. The irony of the lack of action on the evidence presented in Stopping the Harm versus adherence to the evidence used to manage COVID 19 is not lost. In fact, it has exposed the disparities in response to these declared health emergencies. Only the deadly impact of COVID 19 on people who use substances finally moved the province, in April of 2021, to request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in BC.
This is a health issue, a human rights issue, a human tragedy. We must treat people that are struggling with love, compassion, and evidence -based care, just as we would with any other life-threatening issue.
These are systemic problems caused by ideologically driven, punitive policy. We treat this health crisis with stigma, dogma & incarceration. Our country’s drug policy is manufacturing inter-generational trauma, parents are losing their children, children are losing their parents. As a nation as we need to grow up and do what’s right. It’s time.