Decriminalization in the midst of an opioid crisis

Corbin Fehr goofing around with his foster sister, Alyssa/Sent by Hellena-Marie Fehr

It’s 11 a.m. in the morning and Hellena-Marie Fehr hears someone knocking on her door. When the mother of four answers, it’s the police along with a person wearing a victim services uniform.

Her 29-year-old son sat beside her.
“It’s Corbin isn’t it?” Hellena asked.

The officer confirmed that her 25-year-old son had died. He was discovered at 2 a.m. on April 27, 2022, in his bed at Freedom House Recovery Society.

Corbin was using opioids and was in between recovery homes in the Lower Mainland for a year.

He wanted to help his mother take care of his 46-year-old uncle with Down Syndrome, Hellena says.

“My brother, Billy was his favourite person on the planet. Corbin moved in with my mother at one point to care for his uncle and grandmother. He was going to move home end of May to be around family.”

He decided to check himself in at the recovery house in Surrey on March 30, 2022. That was the last day Hellena saw him.

She had found out about his struggle with substance use a few months earlier but wasn’t privy to his struggle until she read his journals and messages.

Corbin Fehr, 25, was a fan of Bob Ross’s paintings and art works/Photo Supplied

But, this wasn’t the first time she had a child struggle.

Her eldest son, who has now been sober for four years, struggled with substance use. But, he recovered and became a substance use counsellor. Now, he works in harm reduction in New Westminster.

A few days after his death, the coroner called to confirm that Corbin Fehr died from using fentanyl mixed with benzodiazepines (benzos).

When she visited the recovery centre to retrieve her son’s belongings, she saw many items were missing, including her son’s tongue piercing, cap and more.

According to her, the recovery house refused to acknowledge anything was missing. They have not responded to our request for comment.

Despite being under investigation, Freedom House Recovery Society in Surrey is operational to this day/Photo Supplied

Corbin chose the recovery house not only because they had an opening, but also because he wanted to be away from those who could influence him to use drugs again.

Hellena filed a criminal complaint against the recovery house on October 18, 2022, to the Department of Justice in Ottawa under section 215 of the Criminal Code for failure to provide necessaries of life.

According to the law, failure to provide necessities of life to someone under your charge, whether due to age, mental health or illness, is a criminal offence.

Mission RCMP could not help her as her son died in Surrey, a different municipality. To pursue legal action, she has since moved to Surrey.

Read: RCMP seizes large amounts of fentanyl from Maple Ridge

She reached out to the Assisted Living Registry in Victoria to file her complaint. They started an investigation into the house but despite her follow-up in early October 2022, there have been no updates.

“It’s rage. I am so angry. If these people had done their job, he might’ve been here a bit longer. Unless you’ve had to sit next to your dead child, combing through his hair, you don’t know,” she said.

Data take from BC Coroner’s Services Illicit Drug Type report/Ayesha Ghaffar

The BC Coroner’s Illicit Drug Deaths report shows that fentanyl caused 81 per cent of illicit drug deaths in British Columbia by October 2022.

By August, benzos had caused 22 per cent of deaths in BC.

These are two of the several opioids that the provincial government is decriminalizing in small amounts starting January 31, 2023.

This means that possession of 2.5 grams of opioids such as fentanyl, morphine, heroin, crack/cocaine, meth and MDMA will not result in an arrest or charges for possession of drugs for three years. This exemption does not legalize drug trafficking.

Marijuana was legalized in Canada on October 17, 2018, despite concerns raised by people that “all hell will break loose” but nothing happened, said Doug Sabourin, executive director for Alouette Addictions.

“The only thing that happened of any note was people that thought they were gonna make a lot of money off the legalization of marijuana, lost their investment because the source of supply was so well known to people that used habitually or used it recreationally. They just kept on going to the same supplier. Nothing happened. Nobody ran amuck in the streets.”

He said that although well-intentioned, the decision does not seem well planned.

“Two and half grams of one drug is not as lethal as two and a half grams of another kinda’ drug. And the thing that we’re seeing right now is that we’re seeing all sorts of combinations that are highly poisonous and can kill people easily,” he said.

Decriminalization is just one aspect of this complex issue, Sabourin explained.

Chronic poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health are all contributing factors to the opioid crisis, he said.

According to the Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH), 20 per cent of Canadians with mental illness also have a substance-use disorder.

Socioeconomic factors are also at play. The research also found that low-income Canadians are three to four times more likely to report poor mental health.

In BC, 22 per cent of people are homeless because of substance use and 51 per cent have a mental health issue, according to the Homeless Services Association of BC.

According to a health report by Statistics Canada, employment instability, low-income and construction industry workers are at higher risk of opioid harm.

The opioid epidemic in Maple Ridge

Another grievance that Hellena has is lack of access to safe supply in rural areas of BC, including Mission.

She mentioned a machine in downtown Vancouver where safe supply is available for people after a medical and social assessment.

The My Safe Society machine, accessed through biometrics, allows people to access safe supply of prescribed hydromorphine tablets.

They are pre-packaged at a selected pharmacy to fit into the MySafe machine, according to the website. They have dispensed 14,876 doses of safe supply since its inception in 2019.

Samantha Monckton manages the communication department for the initiative.

She shared that although there is no machine in Maple Ridge currently, they are in consultation with Mission Mayor Paul Horn and Salvation Army to assess local demand.

And according to Monckton, there’s plenty.

“I can definitely tell you that for the past couple years that I’ve seen the scene on the ground, there is a huge need for it, especially in Mission and any of the rural areas of Maple Ridge because access to safe supply is pretty much impossible unless you have a doctor who will prescribe it which is also pretty impossible,” she said.

In Maple Ridge, 29 toxic drug deaths were reported in 2022. This is one reason why My Safe Project wants to bring their initiative to Maple Ridge.

“Decriminalization is great but it’s got nothing to do with safe supply. Nothing. And yet people try to equate those things. Now people are able to go and put a loaded gun to their head legally. That’s basically what it means. You can legally now go kill yourselves,” she said.

A story by Global News alleges that according to recovery sector workers, youth aged 16 to 17 are accessing the safe supply for recreation.

In a statement, the organization said that although all participants are screened and assessed by doctors, they cannot 100 per cent guarantee what participants do with the safe supply they get.

“We cannot say 100% that there has never been diversion to another person as this is the very nature of the unregulated drug market. From what we have observed, any diversion is to a friend or partner who is drug sick.”

Follow-up interviews and urine tests are done regularly to continue the screening process, the statement added.

Two and half grams of one drug is not as lethal as two and a half grams of another kinda’ drug

Doug Sabourin

Although toxic drugs will continue to be available on the streets, one way to minimize risk is by getting them tested, Monckton added.

Get Your Drugs Tested is a private organization that conducts free test samples of various drugs including fentanyl, cocaine and MDMA to help ensure people are using safe drugs.

By November 2022, they had completed 40,000 drug tests for people across Canada.

Racism and the opioid crisis

According to Monckton, if a Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour is in possession of a drug, they are likely to be incarcerated so decriminalization takes the pressure off them.

“Racially discriminatory health services stemming from the historical and ongoing impact of colonization have reportedly resulted in, for example, Indigenous people being underrated, being treated without their consent or having experienced poor-quality treatment,” mentioned a StatCan report.

The BC Coroners Service confirmed to The Ridge that race-based data is not collected “as there is currently no administrative standard in B.C. for collection of this type of information other than Indigeneity,” said Ryan Panton.

As part of the decriminalization, police officers are working alongside several government agencies to “develop a range of training resources to support knowledge and full implementation of the framework amongst frontline police officers across the province,” said Madonna Saunderson, media relations for RCMP.

The first phase of training started in December 2022 which will be followed by an online course in spring 2023.

But for BC residents, it’s important to make a distinction between decriminalization and legalization.

“Decriminalization does not legalize drugs. Unlike cannabis which is legal, the drugs named in the exemption are still illegal and trafficking offences will also remain unchanged,” Cpl. Saunderson added.

Declared a public health emergency in 2016, the opioid crisis is not a criminal justice issue.

“It requires a multi-faceted approach and as a police agency, our role is to redirect people who possess small amounts of certain illegal drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards health and social services.”

BC Emergency Health Services received 791 overdose calls from Maple Ridge and 60 calls from Pitt Meadows.

“The City of Pitt Meadows is in discussions with outside agencies and groups, including the RCMP, to determine support opportunities, advocacy, and referrals. The city is currently working towards the development of a strategy to support the most vulnerable in our community,” said Carolyn Baldridge, communications manager for Pitt Meadows.

More than 21,000 people have lost their lives to the ongoing opioid epidemic in BC since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016.


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