British Columbia

'There is no safe drug right now in this province': Men disproportionately affected by drug crisis

Helen Jennens lost both of her adult sons to drug overdoses. They both died alone, indoors and without a chance at survival, she says.

Men between 29 and 59 are dying alone behind closed doors because of stigma, says chief coroner

Two men hold up a sign at a June 8, 2016 rally in Vancouver calling for more supervised injection services to deal with a growing crisis of opioid-related overdose deaths. (Denis Dossmann/CBC)

Tyler Leinweber died alone in his ex-wife's bathroom in January 2016, after purchasing what he thought was heroin but turned out to be 100 per cent fentanyl.

No one knew that he was using that night, and he had locked the bathroom door.

His death came less than five years after his older brother, Rian Leinweber, died of a prescription drug overdose, alone in his bed.

They had each become addicted to opioids after being prescribed painkillers.

Since losing both of her sons, Helen Jennens has become an advocate for harm reduction and the stigma she says pushed her boys to use drugs alone.

"People judge it as a moral failing and a choice. Once you're into addiction, there's no longer a choice," Jennens said on CBC's On the Coast.

Cocaine users dying alone

Both Tyler and Rian Jennens are prime examples of the very demographic that has been, and continues to be, the hardest hit by the ongoing fentanyl crisis.

The latest numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service show that drug overdoses have killed 1,013 people in the first eight months of 2017.

Four out of every five of those deaths were men. Nearly all of them — 90 per cent — occurred indoors.

What isn't known is why men are so over-represented in the data, but Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the disparity between men and women is nothing new.

"There's seems to be good evidence that men are likely to suffer workplace injuries and those sorts of things that could lead to more contact with addictive substances, but they're also less likely to ask for help than women and, related to that, more likely to inject alone," he said.

The coroner's drug death investigation team has developed "a detailed protocol" to investigate why men are becoming addicted and why they account for 80 per cent of the deaths. The team expects to release its findings by the end of the year.

B.C.s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said many of the people dying, especially cocaine users, are "opioid naive" and don't expect fentanyl to be in their drugs. 

"It really doesn't matter, because there is no safe [street] drug right now in this province."

She added that they are using alone, because they fear being seen by employers or friends and family.

Rian (left) and Tyler (right) both died of drug overdoses after becoming addicted to prescription pain killers. Their mother, Helen Jennens (centre), is now an advocate for harm reduction and says society needs to detach stigma from drug use. (Moms Stop the Harm)

'Please do not use alone'

With the death count continuing to rise, despite millions of dollars being poured into attempts to stem the crisis, experts and those on the frontline are calling for a major shift in policy and approach to addiction services.

MacPherson has been an outspoken advocate for legalization of narcotics and controversial approaches that would see drug policy flipped on its head in Canada.

His out-of-the-box thinking on the topic recently earned him Simon Fraser University's 2017 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy.

He argues that years of prohibition have pushed people to hide their addictions, and the fastest way to prevent deaths is to make toxic fentanyl-laced drugs unnecessary by providing people with clean, regulated drug programs.

"We have to convince people that this is a societal issue, that it could be their child, their mother, their father, their uncle, their brother and that doing more of the same punitive approach based on drug prohibition is actually going to make things worse," he said.

In the meantime, advocates have an urgent message for drug users:

"Please, do not use alone. Please have Naloxone. Please, do not be afraid to call 911. if you see a friend or someone in distress and seek help from the medical community," said Jennens.