'Demonizing' substance use won't stamp out toxic drug supply, says mother of overdose victim

·5 min read

Editor's note: The following is Part 4 of a multi-part series

Donna May maintains that we can’t arrest our way out of the current drug crisis.

“We are dealing with a poisonous, illicit drug supply,” says the New Lowell mom, who lost her daughter, Jac, to complications related to substance use in 2012. “We are allowing this supply to circulate because we demonize substance use.”

Speaking from her own experience, May says tough love is not the right approach. Through her organization, mumsDU (Moms United and Mandated to Saving the Lives of Drug Users), she is encouraging society to shift gears and look at the problem from a different perspective.

Fentanyl has taken a dominant hold on street drugs locally and across the continent. It, and other opioids, are largely being blamed for the high overdose death rate in recent years that has seen an escalation during the pandemic.

“For dozens of years… drug dealers were very rarely or ever charged with any kind of unlawful death-type charge, or more particularly manslaughter,” said Toronto criminal defence lawyer Ari Goldkind. “If they got caught dealing, even if somebody died or overdosed, the seller would get a few years in jail and that’s that. Fentanyl changes all that.”

The synthetic drug, developed for pain management but cheap to manufacture, quickly entered the street drug market. It can be turned into a powder, blotter paper, made into drops or spray, or made into pills and is used to cut other drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and MDMA.

The problem lies in the difference between the amount that can get you high and the amount that can kill you, Goldkind points out. To the unsuspecting user thinking they’re doing cocaine, it’s indistinguishable.

It is among the family of synthetic drugs that now claims the majority of drug overdose deaths.

The result is an opioid crisis being dubbed the 'other pandemic'.

The judicial response has been to charge drug dealers who can be linked to drug sales in which deaths occur with manslaughter.

In its report 2019 Opioids and Overdoses Impacts and Strategies released last September, Ontario Provincial Police indicated a 500 per cent increase in the number of charges laid by the force during the over two years, with 17 charges laid in two overdose-related deaths in 2018 and 102 charges in 12 overdose-related death investigations in 2019.

During a three-year period, OPP officers across Ontario laid 21 manslaughter charges and 12 of criminal negligence causing death, the report states.

Central Region, which includes Barrie and the rest of Simcoe County, was identified to be “ disproportionately impacted” and most affected by fatal overdoses consistently during the past three years.

The last six months May spent with her daughter before her death completely changed her perspective.

She learned that her attempts to force Jac to buckle up and get back on track, taking her children away and having her incarcerated, only weakened her and pushed her further into that illicit world.

“What it did instead was tell her that nobody cared, that she wasn’t worthy, that she couldn’t find help in us or in society within her community. She stopped trusting everyone and it led her further into criminality,” said May.

It started with a prescription for Oxycodone for treatment to an injury after a fall down a set of stairs. When she was cut off, she turned to the streets for her supply. She discovered fentanyl during its early days and that became her drug of choice.

It wasn’t until Jac was given just weeks to live after being diagnosed with a deadly flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis that May said she began understanding her approach was wrong.

“I was told anywhere from two days to two weeks. And when Jac came out of the induced coma, she said no, she said: ‘I’m going to live for about six months because it will take me that long to explain to you how wrong you were in how you treated me’ as a child in substance use.

“Something that I did allowed something to go so far without me even being conscious of it," May added.

"I needed to make right what had gone wrong. I think the first words out of my mouth were how could I have stopped this. She just looked at me and started to cry. She said: ‘So many times, so many times, all you had to do was be my mother'.”

Jac did live for six months and died from what was believed to be a drug overdose.

May has been working tirelessly since, launching mumsDU in an effort to change drug policy globally after realizing that she had to go to the people who could change the treaties and policies around substance use.

She wants the world to see that all-out prohibition isn’t working. She believes the problem to be a societal/health issue, not a criminal justice one.

“If substances weren’t considered illicit, I don’t think that we’d have the poisoned drug supply we have on the market right now,” she said. “Everything is laced with fentanyl, carfentanil or other agents… and it’s killing people.”

In 2016, she took her message to the United Nations with Jane Philpott, who was the federal health minister at the time. And she’s encouraging Canada and other countries to look at the creation of a safe drug supply as the appropriate response.

May is not alone in calling for societal and legislative change.

Last month, Orillia Senator Gwen Boniface and former OPP commissioner introduced Bill S-229, the Health-Centred Approach to Substance Use Act, in response to calls for the decriminalization of illegal substances. Last summer, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police concluded in their report that decriminalization needed to be pursued.

The bill’s intent is to create a national strategy involving all levels of government and repeal the criminality of possession for personal use of drugs; simple possession of certain classes of drugs would result in fines, mandatory treatment orders and other remedial measures.

From May’s perspective, legalization doesn’t mean the total withdrawal of criminal law.

“When it comes to manufacturing, I say put them in jail and throw away the key,” she said.

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com