Too close to home

Fentanyl’s rise on the recreational drug scene leaves a wake of unsuspecting victims

It was this weekend a year ago that Dylan went to sleep and never woke up.

The night before was strangely normal. There was a trip to Capilano Mall to pick up school supplies. Later, Dylan would devour some Indian takeout, one of his favourites. Then after dinner, Dylan purposely sat down and watched TV with his dad. There was light-hearted conversation and laughter. Dylan’s dad would later describe it as a beautiful evening.

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“He looked good. He was very happy. He was Dylan.”

Alan Bassler knew his son had overcome his addiction, and there was nothing to worry about.

Dylan had a talent for sculpting and photography, and was on the eve of finishing a fine arts diploma at Capilano University. He was in love with his high school sweetheart. The carefree days of summer were around the corner.

Dylan’s seemingly idyllic life, however, was propped up by periods of recreational drug use. It had started the summer before when he was introduced to ketamine, or Special K, at music festivals.

By that fall, recognizing he had a problem, Dylan dealt with his drug addiction while it was in its infancy, with detox and rehab. He vowed to start the new year clean. But on the evening of April 3 the pressures of school and young adulthood took hold.

Dylan walked out the door of his dad’s Lonsdale area apartment and found a quick fix on the street  — this time it was oxycodone laced with a deadly narcotic known as fentanyl. He had no prior warning that the tiny, ostensibly innocuous pill in his hand contained a synthetic painkiller that can pack a punch up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

This new-age heroin, fentanyl, which is cheaper and now being cut into marijuana, cocaine and oxycodone is surreptitiously infiltrating the street drug scene and leaving a wake of unsuspecting victims.

Last year fentanyl was responsible for about a quarter of all overdose deaths in the province, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.And fentanyl doesn’t discriminate, felling everyone from “the boy next door” like Dylan, who was a recreational drug user, to those who struggle every day with substance abuse.

“We never thought it would happen to Dylan,” says Alan. “He didn’t want to let it get out of control. He didn’t want drugs to be a part of his life.”

• • •

Alan sits with Dylan’s mom Jennifer Woodside on the patio outside Honey Doughnuts, immersed in the beauty of Deep Cove, but unable to break free of the mental fog that plagues them. Their grief is palpable.

Today the Cove is full of painful reminders of Dylan: the café a couple doors down that he worked at, the gaggle of 20-somethings who just finished climbing Quarry Rock — Dylan’s favourite hike — and two young men cruising down the main drag in a new car. Dylan was due to get his first car that coming summer.

“It gets harder because of the realization that he’s never coming home,” sighs Jennifer, a couple weeks ahead of the first anniversary of her son’s death.

She points towards Mount Seymour looming over the Cove — that’s where Dylan, taking the same path as many of his fellow students at Seycove secondary, landed one of his first jobs.  Working on the mountain afforded Dylan more time to snowboard, another of his passions.

And just up the road is the family home where Dylan once lived with his parents and older brother. Alan and Jennifer share a smile recalling their son deejaying in the basement.  

Dylan’s parents ultimately remember him as a free spirit, who took challenges head-on, including the obstacle-laden road to recovery from addiction.  

“He really tried hard,” says Jennifer, as Alan nods his head somberly in agreement. She passes him a tissue.

Constant laughter emanates from the adrenalin-fuelled 20-somethings eating their doughnuts. They are clueless to the cautionary tale of youth and the illusion of invincibility being emotionally laid out on the table next to them.

• • •

The morning her youngest died, Jennifer was starting an ordinary day at her home in Port Moody. She was later driving down Hastings Street in Burnaby on her way to North Van when she decided to randomly — or perhaps instinctively — check in with Dylan. The person who answered the phone wanted to wait until Jennifer stopped driving to tell her the news.

“I just put the worse thing out there that it could possibly be,” she recalls heavy-heartedly.

It was Dylan’s girlfriend who found him unresponsive in his bed, called 9-1-1 and tried to resuscitate him. But it was too late. Dylan, who was just 21 years old, was gone.

Jennifer and Alan would have to wait four agonizing hours to see their son, because Alan’s apartment where Dylan lay was considered a crime scene.  When they were finally allowed to enter his bedroom, they were greeted with a sight that no mother and father should have to see.

The chill in the spring air today offers no comfort as their faces crumple when asked if their son looked peaceful. “As peaceful as you can look in a body bag,” says Jennifer, her voice wavering. “It was the last time I saw him.”

• • •

Jennifer’s heart sank after she read a quote recently in the media insinuating that certain areas of the North Shore are immune to drug addiction issues and that these social problems only exist on the Downtown Eastside. It was from a North Van resident who asserted that no one in the Seymour area has drug issues to the point where they need in-patient treatment at a recovery house.

Then mere weeks later came another statement: “It’s just a matter of time” before a fentanyl drug overdose happens here on the North Shore, said an RCMP inspector in a front-page news story.   

She wanted to scream. Dylan did die on the North Shore, of a fentanyl overdose.

“You have kids here, they come over to Lonsdale (Avenue) and they die. Lonsdale is bad,” says Jennifer, of where she has witnessed many drug deals.

Dylan’s parents would like stiffer penalties and deterrents for illegal drug producers and dealers.

Jennifer is also calling for tougher regulations to stymie the synthetic drug trade and the import of product such as fentanyl.  

When prescribed to a patient with chronic pain, fentanyl is slowly released through a patch into the bloodstream over a 24-hour period. Fentanyl’s street counterpart, also known as “green jellies” or “street oxy,” can show up in powder or pill form — again with that lethal potency.  

In February, officers from North Vancouver RCMP’s strike force, as part of a Lower Mainland-wide fentanyl drug bust, raided a home at 2681 Poplynn Dr. and arrested a 51-year-old Lynn Valley man who was found to be storing drug powders and equipment for a clandestine lab.

“Certainly the precursors (for a drug lab) were there, and very dangerous ones as well,” says North Van RCMP spokesman Cpl. Richard De Jong.

Clandestine labs are not commonplace on the North Shore. De Jong speculates that may have been the reason that these drug-making supplies were being stored here — perhaps the ringleaders of the operation thought it would be off the North Van police’s radar.

But what disturbs the RCMP the most about this recent bust is the unidentifiable pills and powders that were found.  

“Ten, 15 years ago we didn’t have this problem with synthetic pharmaceuticals,” says De Jong.

Those buying these modern-day synthetic opiates have no idea of the exact potency or what other drugs they might be ingesting.

“That becomes really playing Russian roulette, if you will, with the pill that you have,” cautions De Jong.

As for the dealing of fentanyl and other opiates on the streets of North Van, the RCMP say they remain vigilant to target the supply lines.

In Lower Lonsdale, where it’s alleged most of the local drug trafficking takes place, the SeaBus is considered a conduit for drugs entering the North Shore.

“Anytime you have a large amount of people using a system like the SeaBus, or transit, or highways — drugs have to move somehow,” says De Jong.

The North Van RCMP works with Metro Vancouver Transit Police to try and identify drug traffickers and intercept them when they reach Lonsdale Quay.

Soon there will be strategic foot patrols in Lower Lonsdale again, with police officers gathering intel from local business owners and people on the street. “And from that we have a pretty good sense pretty quick as to who may be trafficking or even using drugs,” says De Jong.

Over in West Vancouver the police roll out a public awareness campaign, just as North Van does, when a new illicit drug crops up on the streets.

“It is a real concern for people to be aware of; however, any such abuse locally would appear to either be unreported to us, or being dealt with in medical responses that do not involve police,” says Const. Jeff Palmer,  West Vancouver police spokesman.

Late 20s to early 40s appears to be the main demographic for most of the fentanyl-related deaths in this province, according to North Shore medical health officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, citing B.C. Coroners Service statistics. “This is not a problem that seems to be affecting youth,” he says.

Of those fentanyl overdoses in 2014, the majority of them happened in Vancouver, Surrey, Maple Ridge and Langley. In neighbouring Alberta, meanwhile, fentanyl is flourishing at more alarming rates. There were at least 100 fatalities linked to the drug last year, a significant increase from six deaths in 2011.

While Vancouver Coastal Health does not have specific numbers for fentanyl use on the North Shore, Lysyshyn knows people here are unsuspectingly taking it based on urine drug tests performed as part of a surveillance study.  He is promoting a new fentanyl awareness campaign (knowyoursource.ca) aimed at recreational drug users. 

Information on the website explains those who have overdosed on fentanyl will have trouble talking and walking, and irregular breathing.

In hindsight, Alan remembers Dylan was breathing heavily and snoring loudly the night before he died.

• • •

Over at the Orchard Recovery and Treatment Centre on Bowen Island, executive director Lorinda Strang has witnessed a disturbing trend these past few months: patients who self-report using OxyContin or other opiates, but are shocked to find they only test positive for fentanyl. “It just happened again yesterday with a new intake,” says Strang.  

It is extremely important, she explains, to know what drugs the person has been taking to safely put into place an individualized detox protocol.

Fentanyl cases started showing up at the Orchard in 2013, with a steady increase ever since. In the first two months of this year, six North Shore residents entered the Orchard for treatment of opiate abuse — a couple of whom reported fentanyl to be their drug of choice.  

On the day she spoke to the News, Strang received two new inquiries — one for oxy and one for fentanyl.    

She quickly dispels any misconception that opiate addiction only affects those of a lower socioeconomic status. “There are deaths on the North Shore that you don’t always know about,” says Strang. “There’s that stigma around drug use. Fentanyl, OxyContin and heroin — it’s a big problem on the North Shore.”

Orchard addictions specialist Dr. Maire Durnin explains how there is a whole new generation of heroin abusers. “A lot of people became addicted to OxyContin, but as it became more expensive people turned to heroin. Your body thinks: an opioid is an opioid, is an opioid,” says Durnin.

Once heroin or fentanyl gets its hooks in someone, it’s hard for them to break free of the addiction. Durnin’s patients describe feeling calm and almost as if they are wrapped in a warm blanket when they are on fentanyl.

“Some of our patients are having a real hard time staying away from fentanyl,” says Durnin.

However, if they do go to detox and get clean but decide to try the drug again — the consequences can be deadly. Because their body becomes naive to the opiate, explains Durnin, the risk of overdose is high.

One of the obstacles that drug addicts living on the North Shore face in their battle to recovery is the lack of resources available to them in their own community. 

“We don’t have decent addiction services on the North Shore,” affirms Durnin.

Today, at an addictions clinic out in Surrey, she is seeing three clients who have travelled from the North Shore for treatment, because there is no equivalent help available in their backyard.

Durnin wanted an idea of how many North Shore residents are in need of addictions services. So, a couple years ago she canvassed pharmacies up and down Lonsdale to ask how many patients were being prescribed methadone, used to treat opiate addiction. The number was 50. “The patients are there, and these numbers have increased,” says Durnin.

A VCH-operated day program, Stepping Stones, in West Vancouver does offer some addiction services, with doctors and specialists available there for daily drop-in group sessions, individual counselling and consultations.

Dylan briefly attended Stepping Stones, but, according to Jennifer, he wasn’t getting enough help from the program. She eventually hired a private psychologist for Dylan, as part of his treatment, which also included travelling over town to a detox program near Main and Kingsway.

Addictions services are lacking on the North Shore, Lysyshyn agrees. “This is why I have spoken out in support of a proposed support recovery facility for men in the District of North Vancouver,” he says, referring to a recent proposal to open a drug and alcohol recovery house in the Seymour area.

Durnin champions the project as well, saying it’s the stigma around addiction that perpetuates the illness and drives it underground. “Not everybody has to hit the Downtown Eastside before we get them into recovery,” says Durnin.

• • •

Jennifer experienced something called “disenfranchised grief” in the seemingly endless days after that fateful April 4 morning — as if it was somehow her fault that Dylan died. She says it’s a grief that is not acknowledged by society because of a sense of shame.

“When you lose a child to an accident — the things that have a stigma are murder, suicide and substance abuse,” explains Jennifer.

If she mentioned Dylan’s name, the whole room would go quiet. People would also look at her like she was living their worst nightmare: losing a child.

Jennifer decided to channel her grief into something positive: she started the first Canadian chapter of Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (GRASP), a support group for people who have lost someone to drugs or alcohol.

Once a month the members — siblings, parents, extended family and friends of the deceased — meet in a classroom at Gilmore Community School in Burnaby to talk about the pleasant memories they have.

For Jennifer, it’s been therapeutic to trade stories with bereaved parents who have reached out to her from across the country.

As April 4 approached, Dylan’s parents were making plans to commemorate their son’s life. Alan planned to take a peaceful walk in the Cove, while Jennifer talked of working on a memorial garden in her backyard.

The solace is temporary though, as fentanyl has changed their lives forever.  

“It’s a life sentence for Dylan, and it’s a life sentence for his family,” says Jennifer.  

GRASP’s next meeting is April 9. For details, contact graspvancouver@gmail.com.

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