The War on Drugs… Battles Won but the War Still Rages

In the seventeen months since Helen Jennens lost her second son to addiction, much has changed in the war against drug-related deaths. But in some ways, very little has changed at all.

Readers of Okanagan Woman met Helen a few short months after her son Tyler had died from an overdose of pure fentanyl in 2016. Five years earlier, her son Rian had died in his sleep from a prescription overdose. (Click to view The War on Drugs... One Woman's Words of Wisdom)

Helen has developed an unbridled passion and boundless energy, creating a voice for her sons and others who suffer from drug issues. She can often be found helping anguished parents who have lost their own children, or have kids battling drugs right now. She is an active member of Moms Stop the Harm, a group of mothers who are assisting those other parents and the addicts themselves. She is a driving force behind The Foundry Kelowna, an integrated service centre for drug and mental health sufferers aged 12 to 24. She is a believer in the works of Dr. Gabor Maté, working tirelessly to bring him and his message about harm reduction to Kelowna.

Recently Dr. Maté, a renowned speaker, bestselling author and expert on addiction, spoke to a packed house in the Delta Grand, Kelowna, for an afternoon workshop and evening presentation that drew over 1,300 participants.

For a dozen years, Dr. Maté’s clinic in Vancouver’s East side opened its’ doors to patients challenged by hard-core drug addiction, mental illness, HIV and related health issues. He was also involved in Vancouver’s Supervised Injection Site. Dr. Maté believes that all addiction is related to personal trauma. Individuals who seek relief from a deep, ongoing and personal pain will turn to addictive substances – including drugs, alcohol and a host of other harmful activities – to relieve that pain. His belief is that a very humane and respectful approach to treatment may buy time or save a patient’s life. His experiences during that time are reflected in his writing, including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. It is a must-read for families and friends of drug abusers. Dr. Gabor Maté is also launching a website offering online courses in his areas of expertise. To learn more, visit his web site and join his e news.

Helen Jennens has focused her efforts on Moms Stop the Harm and The Foundry. Both of those groups have had a tremendous impact on the issues surrounding drug use. Helen admits, though, that the process is a slow one and education of the general public is paramount.

A year ago, the British Columbia government declared a public health emergency over the expanding fentanyl crisis, which continues to result in unprecedented overdoses and deaths. According to a recent Castanet report, local 911 calls for overdoses and poisonings are on the rise, reflecting a 40 per cent increase from average monthly calls in 2016. The BC Coroners Service reports that 17 people have died in Kelowna alone from overdoses in the first two months of 2017, while the total number of deaths in 2016 was 48. It is clear that there is much work to be done to save lives.

The advent of The Foundry Kelowna will enable mental health and drug patients a ‘one stop shopping’ approach. Prior to this, sufferers often had no way of knowing how and where to get all the help they need.

“Right now, several agencies are required for a young person with this type of issue, and every service you want to access is at a different location. You’re in the wrong place or struggling with wait lists. Often, a person will have to tell their story seven or eight times before they get the necessary care,” Helen explains. “The Foundry is an integrated services hub offering all of those services under one roof. It is being built on Kirschner and is due to open in June. A patient will be seen and assessed by the appropriate health provider that same day, and a recovery plan put in place. Finally, this is somewhere youths can go.”

The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation has thrown their support behind the Foundry in a big way, launching a campaign to raise $2 million to open Foundry Kelowna. Their efforts to date have been successful, but they’re still working on it. Additional funding will come from the Provincial Government.

“The creation of Foundry Kelowna is really important to me,” Helen said. “I am now raising two grandchildren that are at high risk for mental health and drug issues because of their own childhood trauma.”

Helen says there is now a police vehicle in Kelowna, manned by psychiatric nurses and RCMP, which responds to incidents when someone is in crisis.

“They’re there to assess, not arrest. What this vehicle is attempting to do is make it safer for the drug user and the community.”

There will also be a mobile Safe Consumption RV that will travel around the city to various hot spots. Contrary to public perception, addicts will not be given free drugs, but will be provided with free needles and as important, needle disposal units. People manning the sites will offer treatment options and help users onto the road to recovery. Naloxone will be available for those who overdose. In this way, a multiple variety of responders aren’t sent out to each and every overdose.

“The vans help minimize many of those costs and offer a safe service. It is an attempt to contain drug use and minimize death in a cost-effective, efficient and compassionate way,” Helen said.

Her efforts with Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) have been fueled by their approach to drug addiction and harm reduction. While it is sometimes controversial, this multi-provincial group of Moms who have lost children to addiction believe in different ways of handling the issue of addiction. As Helen points out, though membership in MSTH is growing, it is a club that no one wants to belong to.

The MSTH web site explains, “We envision a new approach based on reducing harm, where people who use drugs are treated with respect, compassion and support.”

MSTH supports the creation of safe injection sites across Canada and easier, more abundant access to detox centres. In order for deadly drugs, in particular fentanyl, to be eradicated from the streets, detox centres – including long term facilities - must be enlarged, have more resources and be fully funded. MSTH believes detox centres should take anyone, regardless of the level of addiction. Intranasal Naloxone needs to be provided at no charge to combat the overdose crisis, as well.

Helen explains that all physicians should be trained in the use of suboxone to assist in treatment recovery, and that physicians stay the course on more conservative opioid prescribing. In BC, the use of Pharmanet – an online resource to check a patient’s prescribing history – must be compulsory when a physician is prescribing opioids.

MSTH is founded on the belief that addiction and concurrent mental health problems are treated in a holistic manner with families at the centre of the treatment. Science-based, realistic, age-appropriate education needs to be available in middle and high schools.

MSTH’s stance on the war on drugs can be controversial, as they believe that the war on drugs is essentially prohibition, and there will always be people who use and misuse drugs.

According to MSTH, research shows that if drugs are legalized, regulated and available through legal dispensaries, the profit motive disappears for cartels and dealers in illicit drugs. This has been the case in countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland. These nations have seen decreased death and overdoses amongst drug users, less drug-related illnesses, fewer addicts and safer families.

What happens next in Canada remains to be seen, but Helen Jennens hopes her personal efforts will ultimately help reduce death by drugs.

“My message is simple…If you are a drug user, recreational or other, carry naloxone and don’t use alone. Go slow and remember, there are people will suffer deeply if they lose you.”

Kelowna is acknowledged as a progressive community in the many ways it is addressing the drug crisis. But, as she points out, drug abuse knows no boundaries.

“My story is about my children. But this can happen to anyone’s child.”

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