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‘How could this happen?’: After losing loved ones to opioids, grieving relatives take action

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died of opioid overdoses last year – a record high in a crisis that shows no signs of abating. The mounting deaths have turned ordinary citizens into vocal advocates for drug-policy reform; Grief has made way for action.

On Saturday, Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families who have lost loved ones to overdoses with members from coast to coast, will rally on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria. They are calling for the decriminalization of drug possession and consumption, as well as access to a safer, regulated source.

The Globe and Mail talks to three families who have lost loved ones to overdoses now calling for change.

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John and Jennifer Hedican

Jennifer Hedican, left, cries after her husband John, right, spoke about their son Ryan Hedican, who died of a fentanyl overdose in April 2017, during a news conference.

DARRYL DYCK

Throughout Ryan Hedican’s struggle with addiction, the odds seemed in his favour: The young electrician was educated and employed, aware of his health issue and actively seeking help, and had a supportive network, including parents with good enough credit and big enough hearts to fund two recovery programs to the tune of about $70,000.

But as John and Jennifer Hedican would later say, their son died not because of his addiction, but because of poisoning by fentanyl. The synthetic opioid, which washed across North America in recent years and supplanted illicit supplies of drugs such as heroin and oxycodone, turned relapse – a common setback on the road to recovery – into a deadly game of Russian roulette.

John Hedican, who himself grappled with alcoholism some 30 years ago, said he always felt his son would beat his addiction with time.

“It might have taken him another time or two – we’ll never know – but I believe he would have got there,” Mr. Hedican said in an interview. “But fentanyl is just not giving people an opportunity to try again.”

Ryan Hedican died on April 24, 2017, found during his lunch break while working a construction job in Vancouver. He was 26 years old.

Jennifer Hedican holds a photo of her son Ryan Hedican, who died of a fentanyl overdose in April 2017.

DARRYL DYCK

Since then, the Hedicans have become vocal advocates for drug-policy reform. They are calling for not only drug decriminalization, but for a “system to provide safe, unadulterated access to substances” so that people who use drugs are not at risk of overdose from contaminated sources.

“Five years ago if someone had said to me we have to legalize all drugs, I would have said, ‘We’ve got enough problems with alcohol,’ ” Mr. Hedican said. “Today, I’m fighting for legalizing all drugs.”

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Ms. Hedican said her family’s experience has changed her views on drug use and addiction.

“I didn’t know you could love a drug user,” Ms. Hedican said, her voice wavering. “I thought that was something you never wanted someone to be, and if they chose that, that was just horrible. They didn’t choose it.

“I’m ashamed of the views that I had before, and that I never took the opportunity to examine them and to say, ‘Where did I get these views from?’ ”

The Hedicans have appeared alongside Judy Darcy, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, at press conferences on overdose deaths. They have hosted round tables with families and government. They have presented in high schools and elementary schools.

In March, Mr. Hedican initiated a petition to the Government of Canada calling for the current overdose epidemic to be declared a national public-health emergency; the decriminalization of personal possession; and the creation of a system to provide unadulterated drugs to people who use them. It currently has about 2,200 signatures.

Amy Graves

There were no warning signs before Amy Graves lost her younger brother Josh. The 21-year-old had just bought his first car, gotten a promotion at his arborist job and moved back to Nova Scotia where the family lived.

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“At the time of his death, he was successful and happy, and had lots of things to look forward to,” said Ms. Graves, who now lives in St. Albert, Alta. “He was proud of his accomplishments and was just starting to build a life outside of being a high-schooler and young adult.”

On a Saturday night in March, 2011, Mr. Graves and his girlfriend attended a friend’s party, where he drank and ingested some of the hydromorphone that others were using. The powerful opioid slowed his breathing; he fell asleep that night and never awoke.

Ms. Graves was only vaguely aware of what hydromorphone was at the time. Some people in high school used it recreationally, she recalled – the pills were dubbed “dillies,” after their brand name, Dilaudid – but she hadn’t fully grasped how deadly they could be.

“I was just so uneducated on how permanent the consequences of opioids can be, that you don’t have to develop a substance-use disorder and be injecting heroin to have a negative outcome,” Ms. Graves said. “I didn’t realize that people who use drugs recreationally were at such a risk.”

She started a Facebook group called Get Prescription Drugs Off The Street (GPDOTS) and began organizing rallies to call for more responsible prescribing practices and increased access to addiction services. The first goal, Ms. Graves said, was to get the Nova Scotia government to acknowledge there was a prescription opioid problem in the province and begin collecting data.

The first rally took place just nine days after Mr. Graves’s death, in front of a local addiction-treatment facility. People hurled insults as they drove by: “Your brother deserved to die.” Seven years later, Ms. Graves remembers standing there, trying not to cry or lash out.

“It was really hard. It was really hard to keep my cool,” she said. “Looking back, in the moment, I didn’t realize it was stigma. It was like, ‘This is really awful. I’ve never had people attack me this way.’ And it was simply because my brother experimented with drugs. All of a sudden he was an unworthy human being, because of this one small choice he made in a whole life of great things he had done.”

Over the years, GPDOTS has advocated through rallies, conferences and letter-writing. Recent efforts have included education on new legislation such as the federal Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, medication-assisted treatment and how to access harm-reduction services.

Ms. Graves is mulling a name-change for the organization to reflect the current fentanyl crisis and the fact that some prescription drugs need to be more widely available – such as those used in opioid substitution therapies – and that cutting people off of prescribed medications can be dangerous.

Petra Schulz

Petra Schulz holds a picture of her son Danny, who she lost to an accidental fentanyl overdose in Edmonton, Alta.

JASON FRANSON

Danny Schulz revealed his heroin addiction to his family in 2011. His boyfriend at the time was about to leave him, he had burned through money his parents had given him for tuition and he was essentially homeless. His world seemed to be crumbling around him.

His parents, Petra and Rick Schulz, connected him with a psychologist, and a physician who prescribed methadone. Rick attended family counselling, where he was told to practise tough love and let his son hit rock bottom if need be.

The Schulzes were supportive and compassionate – but, in hindsight, lacking the tools and knowledge to effectively help Danny, Petra Schulz said.

“Nobody told us of the high risk of relapse, or the lowered tolerance [from detoxing], or that we should carry a naloxone kit,” Ms. Schulz said. “For us, rock bottom was six feet under.”

Danny Schulz died from an accidental fentanyl overdose in April, 2014, in Edmonton after relapsing. He was 25.

Following her son’s death, Ms. Schulz set up a Google alert for fentanyl. She recalled seeing warnings about the drug from law-enforcement officials but few from health officials.

“I thought, ‘This is a health crisis. How could this happen?’” she said. “How can so many people die from such a dangerous drug and there aren’t any warnings?”

Ms. Schulz began telling her son’s story. She began hearing from other mothers who shared similar stories. With Leslie McBain and Lorna Thomas, she founded Moms Stop the Harm.

She has since organized and spoken at harm-reduction forums across the country, lobbied government and health officials and, most recently, helped launch peer-support groups for those grieving the loss of loved ones. Ms. Schulz is also a member of the Minister’s Opioid Emergency Response Commission in Alberta as a representative for community advocacy groups.

Petra Schulz’s son, Danny, died from an accidental fentanyl overdose in April, 2014.

JASON FRANSON

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