'If it hasn't happened ... it's coming': Mothers of addicts urge radical approach to fentanyl crisis

If the latest numbers don't provide enough motivation to address the fentanyl crisis — 914 dead in British Columbia this year alone from overdoses linked to the drug — Kathy Wagner hopes her son's story will. She and three other mothers are proposing a radical solution to the devastating toll fentanyl-laced drugs are having on addicts and their loved ones.

Take fentanyl out of street drugs by controlling supply, say families affected by overdose crisis

Kathy Wagner lost her 21-year-old son to an overdose of cocaine laced with fentanyl. She hopes his story will inspire others to pressure the government to get serious about tackling the problem of fentanyl-laced street drugs. (CBC)

If the latest numbers don't provide enough motivation to address the fentanyl crisis — 914 dead in British Columbia this year from overdoses linked to the drug, according to new figures released today — Kathy Wagner hopes the story of her son will.

Tristan Kroeker was just 21 years old when he died, alone, on a friend's couch, in late August. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, the cause of death was an overdose of cocaine that had been laced with fentanyl.

Kroeker and his family had battled his addiction since he was a young teenager. Cocaine was Kroeker's drug of choice, and increasingly, that drug is being contaminated with fentanyl.

In the first nine months of this year in B.C., fentanyl was detected in 83 per cent of street drug overdoses involving heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Five years ago, it was just four per cent.

​It is the growing presence of fentanyl that is making getting high so deadly, and addicts like Kroeker knew it.

"It terrified him," Wagner said, "and he was determined not to do it, but he was feeling this pull. And it was just so hard, but it terrified him."

Tristan Kroeker, 21, died in late August. He had battled addiction since he was a teenager. (CBC)

Kroeker had been clean and in recovery, but it didn't last and he was pulled back into his addiction.

A few weeks after he died, ​on a warm autumn afternoon on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, Wagner spoke about her son's addiction, along with three of her friends, all mothers of adult children who continue to ​struggle with addiction.

They say it has been a constant battle, a lifetime commitment, and they want others to know it can happen to anyone.

'It's coming'

Lou​ Cameron's ​stepson Ken, ​suffering from depression and ​an addiction to stimulants​, committed suicide. Her son, Ian, is addicted as well, and she says he probably doesn't fit the stereotype people have of the down-and-out street addict.

"People would say to me, 'Not Ian,' you know, the captain of the soccer team, straight-A student, Hollywood handsome — even at the height of his addiction."

Cameron pauses and then says that addiction can strike any time, without warning, like lightning.

"If it hasn't happened in your family ... either you're in denial or it's coming."

She says her experiences have turned her into a radical — one of four middle-aged moms, kind and candid, who are now ​advocating for something they say will save lives but is contentious: make drugs such as cocaine and heroin legal and having them inspected and sold by the government.

Their argument is pretty simple: the power of addiction combined with the prevalence of fentanyl is killing hundreds of people​ who, despite the risks, won't stop doing drugs. Taking those drugs out of the hands of criminal dealers and having the government control the supply could save many of those lives, they say.

An advertisement in downtown Vancouver shows a cadaver with a toe tag that lists the cause of death as an overdose of fentanyl, 'unknowingly taken with other drugs.' B.C. has been the hardest hit of the provinces in the fentanyl crisis, with more than 900 people dying of fentanyl-linked overdoses so far this year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

They're not the only ones to have proposed a decriminalization approach to the overdose crisis, and they have no illusions about how politically unpalatable it is.

Wagner had spent five long years trying to save her son and says there will be enough public pressure at some point to make street drugs safer.

"People will not stop dying,and the number will continue to increase until the country wakes up," she said.

Still, she's resolute.

"There is no argument against this," she said. "You know, if it's about people's opinions or moral values, then it's going to take a longer time to shift that for them, for the bodies to pile up."

4 mothers want to stem fentanyl with state-supplied street drugs


4 years ago
Four B.C. mothers whose children have been affected by fentanyl are proposing a radical solution to the overdose crisis: taking drugs out of the hands of criminals and letting the government control the supply and the quality 5:19


Ian Hanomansing is the co-host of The National. Since 1986, he has had a wide variety of assignments for CBC as a reporter, anchor and interviewer. He also has a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax.