Like you, I never thought the opioid crisis would knock at my door. Then it came for my son

With a crisis of this magnitude, you would expect an all-hands-on-deck response from governments. But most politicians, with a few exceptions, seem to be sleepwalking through this nightmare — too afraid to be seen as "coddling" or "weak."

If our elected leaders have been slow to act, it isn't because they are baffled about potential solutions

With a crisis of this magnitude, you would expect an all-hands-on-deck response from governments. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

My introduction to the opioid crisis began at a distance. 

I watched the overdose death toll rise in British Columbia, which seemed to be the epicentre of the trouble, and then in other provinces. The crisis got perceptibly closer to home about two and a half years ago, when two local teenagers in Ottawa fatally overdosed. Shortly after, it got near enough to stab me in the heart.

On February 25, 2017, my 24-year-old son Simon died of an accidental opioid overdose. I made him coffee that morning and put it on a small table beside the couch in the basement where he had spent the night. He never got a chance to drink that coffee — or live a full life, as we somehow expect our children to do.

For the record, I had not seen this catastrophe coming. I didn't think my son was likely to use opioids, let alone fatally overdose. However, the risk to young adults was obviously on my mind due to the nearby teen fatalities, because I texted Simon the day before he died to say "Thank you for not ODing on opioids." 

Yeah, I know. This was a strange and stupid thing to write, for so many reasons, and it haunts me. I suppose it was my clumsy way of raising a few issues. I had hoped to talk to my son about the poor teens, but I never got the chance. And now my life has been upended by this crisis. My heart broken. Like so many others.

As with others who suffer this kind of loss, I also wonder how I got here. What happened? My family doesn't know much about what Simon was doing that fateful night. However, we have reason to believe it was his first time taking opioids. We also think he was self-medicating. 

Simon suffered from anxiety and depression. He had been on anti-anxiety medication for about eight years and in counselling for a few months. My partner and I were happy that our son was finally seeking additional help for his mental health issues, but we later learned he was also being treated for a cocaine dependency.

You should know: I hesitate to mention the cocaine because I suspect it will mean a number of you will draw less-than-kind conclusions about my son. Many people see those with drug addictions as weak, less than, and not worthy of our compassion. 

Drug users know people judge them. They understand there is a stigma attached to what they do, and so, they often hide it from us. Sadly, this means that many of our loved ones end up dying alone in basements, as Simon did, without the help of family, friends and life-saving medications such as Naloxone. 

"Not my loved ones," you might be thinking, and I hope you're right. It's certainly easier to believe, as I once did, that the opioid crisis is some far-off threat, like a flood or fire in another province. The reality is that it may be bigger and closer than many of us want to admit.

Crisis numbers

As then-Health Minister Jane Philpott noted back in 2017, the opioid death toll is worse than the body count from any infectious epidemic since the Spanish flu, which killed about 50,000 people in Canada about a century ago. It is higher than at the peak of the AIDS pandemic in 1995 and significantly greater than the 44 lives lost during the 2003 SARS contagion.

On average, someone dies from an opioid-related overdose every two hours. Put another way, 12 people in our country die each day. On a yearly basis, the numbers are staggering and on the rise. There were 4,460 opioid-related deaths in 2018, 360 more than in 2017 and 1,443 more than in 2016. The total for the last three years alone is almost 11,600, which suggests we are well on our way to hitting the halfway mark for Spanish flu losses in another three years or so.

With a crisis of this magnitude, you would expect an all-hands-on-deck response from governments. But most politicians, with a few exceptions, seem to be sleepwalking through this nightmare. One — Ontario Premier Doug Ford — has even made matters worse by pulling funding from a number of the safe consumption sites, which demonstrably save lives. 

If our elected leaders have been slow to act or have acted badly, it isn't because they are baffled about potential solutions. They know that Portugal has dramatically reduced overdose fatalities by decriminalizing all drug use and adopting policies that treat addiction like a public health challenge, rather than a shameful criminal condition. They also know that legal regulation could provide a safer drug supply and reduce the mortality rate. And yet many of our elected representatives have been reluctant to consider — or even discuss — these measures.

To my mind, it seems like politicians are afraid to upset those who think, erroneously, that it is coddling and enabling to treat drug users with anything short of criminal punishment. These politicians don't want to be seen as "soft" or "weak," even though the solutions are right there. I get it. No politician likes to upset voters. 

But isn't saving lives more important than pandering to the electorate? Shouldn't we at least have an adult conversation about how to better tackle the largest public health emergency of our lifetime? 

The opioid crisis should be a major issue in the upcoming federal election, and it will say something dire about political parties and voters if it is not. 

Dr. Thomas Kerr from the BC Centre on Substance Use put it starkly in an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier this year: "To continue to accept the rate of death that's occurring now is, I think, immoral, and people will look back on us and judge us harshly for our inaction."

It's fair comment. Our inaction is an epic failure. And I often wonder what it's going to take to overcome our inertia and indifference. I fear the answer is many more deaths, including dreadful possibilities for plenty of us. Please trust me when I tell you that you don't want to let this disaster come knocking. You don't want it getting any closer than it already is.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Katherine Steinhoff lives in Ottawa and is recently retired from her job as a Research and Communications Specialist with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.