Courtenay family advocating for drug decriminalization following death of son

Jennifer Hedican knew her son Ryan wanted help.

It was the weekend, and with her husband John, they took their son to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox. At the hospital, Ryan was only given a business card.

“They told us to call the public health nurse on Monday. On Monday, Ryan was gone.”

Hedican pauses for a moment, resting her arms on her kitchen table in her Courtenay home.

“If he was a cancer patient, would he have been given a card?”

• • •

Growing up in the Comox Valley, Ryan was, as described by John, “a typical little boy,” who played sports, water skied and played piano.

“Like a lot of things, he didn’t have to work very hard – he had a lot of natural ability,” adds Jennifer.

After graduating from Mark R. Isfeld Secondary, Ryan received his business diploma from North Island College. He thought he would open his own business, but couldn’t find anything that appealed to him, and went back to school for the electrical program at the college in Campbell River.

Prior to his post-secondary schooling, his parents agree they knew he was using drugs recreationally.

It began with alcohol in Grade 10, and shortly afterwards, Ryan was using marijuana. Later, he used heroin.

Jennifer says for the longest time, she attributed the shift in his behaviour to anxiety, but she now knows it was his drug use.

“I was surprised – I was shocked at first. He lived in our house and we would discuss his behavioral choices. He told me he was in a bad spot, but he wasn’t telling us he had a problem. There is a lot of shame in being a drug addict; he didn’t want to be a drug addict. He wanted to be with everyone else but he had this monkey on his back.”

Between his first and second year of school, Ryan found work in the Lower Mainland perfecting his trade.

John says he was able to get clean on his own and he did really well both in school and at the job site. He attended school in Burnaby for his second year and returned to work, but lost his job as his drug use increased.

The Hedicans offered to place Ryan in treatment, and he accepted. Following eight weeks of treatment, he moved home, and eventually found a job working at the Campbell River Hospital as a second-year electrician.

He began using again.

“He had a plan,” explains Jennifer. “He was only going to use every few days – that way he didn’t think he’d have withdrawal symptoms. That didn’t work too well; you’re never smarter than the drugs.”

Ryan eventually moved to Parksville where he lost contact with family for a few months. John received a call from him asking for help.

The family called a variety of resources seeking help. There were wait-lists and roadblocks, and the Hedicans knew Ryan wanted help immediately.

They found a treatment centre in New Westminster, where Ryan lived for eight months.

He found work in Vancouver, and had moved out with friends from the centre in mid-April.

A few days later, Ryan, 26, passed away on April 24, 2017, from a long battle of addiction due to, as termed by the Hedicans, “fentanyl poisoning.”

• • •

The Hedicans understand their approach to changing the way addiction is regarded and treated in Canada is controversial, but they believe lives can be saved by providing a safe, clean source for opiates and other drugs and decriminalizing personal possession.

Jennifer draws parallels between fentanyl and the AIDS crisis – and recalls when those who contracted AIDS were highly stigmatized within society – yet adds sexuality is a normal part of the human condition.

“Addiction is an unwanted disease caused by substance abuse,” Jennifer says firmly. “Substance use is a human condition. For those who say people chose that lifestyle – nobody chooses addition.

“What is the difference between pouring two glasses of wine or taking a toke of a joint or a line of cocaine? One is illegal. If you took the word ‘criminal’ out of it, you’ll see it as part of the human condition – it gives people pleasure. It’s inherent in those substances; that’s what they’re designed to do.”

John – who has spoken to representatives of various levels of government – wonders why the government supports the legalization of some drugs (alcohol and marijuana), yet not others. He feels the use of legal drugs often leads to the use of illegal and now poison-laced drugs.

“(People) are treated as criminals for simple possession; how come we provide safe injection sites yet it is illegal to have those substances in your possession?”

In a report released by the BC Coroners Service last week, there were 914 illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C., with fentanyl detected from January through September 2017 – a 147 per cent increase (370 deaths) from the same period last year.

In northern Vancouver Island, there were 23 fentanyl-detected deaths from January to September. In comparison, there were none in 2012 and one in 2013.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has noted the New Democrats would decriminalize personal possession of all drugs, not just marijuana.

Both John and Jennifer are sharing their experiences through school presentations and will continue to advocate for what they believe would be an option for government to address the fentanyl crisis.

They are asking others to contact government officials to share their concerns.

“My thoughts may not be your thoughts, but we’re putting an honesty and face to the numbers,” notes John. “It’s so easy to think that (overdoses and deaths) are happening to ‘those people’ – those on the Downtown Eastside. But it’s us. It’s happening to us.”

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