Toxic drugs were leading cause of death among B.C. youth from 2017 to 2022
Greg Sword remembers how his daughter Kamilah used to love coming to play in Lions Park when she was a little girl growing up in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
"You got the river just down from here where we could go swimming … [we'd] bring her bike here, she would just ride around and be so full of life," Sword told The Current.
But as Kamilah got older and went to high school, she began to experiment with drugs to cope with anxiety and pressure she felt about not fitting in with her peers. Like many teenagers, she started with marijuana, but moved on to prescription drugs like Xanax and dangerous opioids like fentanyl.
The park where she once played with her dad became the place she would buy and use those drugs.
"I had to drag my daughter out of this park a few times, and every time she was just obliterated," Sword said. "And it's just a horrible place for me to be."
Kamilah died from an overdose in August 2022. She was just 14 years old.
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Last month, the B.C. coroner reported that unregulated drugs were the leading cause of unnatural death among the province's youth between 2017 and 2022. This year there have already been 19 unregulated drug deaths, while research in Ontario shows that opioid-related deaths among teens and young adults tripled in that province between 2014 and 2021.
But parents like Sword say they've struggled to navigate treatment options and approaches when their children end up in the health-care system. Sword hasn't received the coroner's report yet, but he's been told that cocaine, MDMA and hydromorphone were found in his daughter's system.
Kamilah had been hospitalized with two previous overdoses, and had met with psychiatrists, youth counsellors and drugs counsellors. But Sword said he was sometimes excluded from those conversations, and worries that Kamilah knew what to say to downplay the problem and avoid treatment programs.
I don't want to think that my daughter just was a number and died for no reason and no purpose
– Greg Sword
After her first overdose, a drug counsellor told Kamilah she could keep using marijuana to deal with her anxiety, telling Sword it was at least a safer alternative to opioids.
"She's 13 at the time. I don't want her doing anything," Sword remembers.
"But my daughter heard a professional tell her that she can keep on doing pot — Dad knows nothing."
At times, he said he felt "absolutely helpless."
Getting at why teens turn to drugs
Addiction medicine specialist Dr. James Wang said younger and younger patients are showing up to his hospital with overdose and substance use issues, including children as young as 12.
Once those teens are stable, he said they undergo an assessment of what drugs they're using and what treatments might be suitable. But he added that an important part of that conversation is asking why they're taking those drugs — and whether they're ready to make a change.
"[We] assess their particular substance-use goals and try to meet them wherever those goals are," said Wang, a pediatrician at B.C.'s Children's and Women's Hospital in Vancouver.
Danya Fast, a research scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, said that if a young person isn't ready to stop using drugs and commit to a treatment program, there is a risk that trying to force them into one will only make the problem worse.
She added that young people use drugs for a variety of reasons, from managing physical or emotional pain to finding fun and connection with their peers. Some young people will seek those benefits even when the harm of substance use becomes apparent, she said.
"When we have young people deciding that that's what's best for them, we really want to be able to connect them with harm-reduction services and spaces, including spaces where they can use more safely," said Fast, an assistant professor with the department of medicine at UBC.
'They're dying all the time'
One of Kamilah's friends, a Grade 12 student who The Current is calling Cassidy, has been struggling with substance use for years. Her mother has also found it frustrating to get help.
"My daughter ends up telling her story over and over and over and with each new person, they have to learn who she is and how to help her," said Cassidy's mother. "There's never enough time spent with them to be able to do anything."
The Current is not using Cassidy or her mother's real names, out of concern for the teenager's future employment prospects.
After Cassidy suffered an overdose, a doctor recommended that she try an opioid agonist treatment (OAT) program, where opioids are prescribed to be used in a safe way to manage cravings and prevent overdose.
But Cassidy initially resisted the idea.
"For like the first few years of me needing help, I didn't really want it. And then one day I just told my mom, like, that we could try it," Cassidy said.
"I wasn't happy with myself, and I know that Kamilah wouldn't want me to be in the place that I was in."
Cassidy now gets a monthly injection of Sublocade, a slow-release prescription medicine used to treat addiction. Her mother is hopeful, but can't help worrying.
"It's not like they're anomalies. It's not like 'Oh, it's only happened once and that's it," Cassidy's mother said.
"They're dying all the time, one of her friends died in June."
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Look at every tool to solve crisis: minister
Fast knows it's "terrifying" to see young people taking dangerous drugs, but said "approaching them with the only option being abstinence" might actually push some away from care.
She wants to see younger people have increased access to harm-reduction spaces, including safe-consumption sites where they could use drugs under supervision. Those spaces can also help young people access treatment programs when they're ready to take that step, she said.
Wang added that assessment and treatment should recognize there are differences between substance use issues among younger people versus adults. He said the impact of drug use on a teenager's development is important to consider, as well as the specific peer and family dynamics that might be involved.
B.C.'s Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside wouldn't say whether her government supports the creation of special safe-consumption sites for youth, but did say that "all of the harm reduction opportunities" need to be looked at.
"We have to take the advice of doctors like Dr. Fast to ensure that we're providing the right kinds of services for youth and connecting them to the right kind of care," Whiteside told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"We have to look at every single tool in the toolbox in order to try to turn the dial on this crisis."
Speaking up to help others
In the months before she died, Kamilah was talking about her future. Her dad said she talked about eventually moving into a place with her best friend and travelling the world.
But she was secretly taking drugs to help her sleep at the same time, and hiding it from her dad to avoid disappointing him.
"Now I feel the guilt of like, I should have known," he said. "You feel like a failure. And no matter what people tell you, it's always inside you."
He's telling their story in the hope that it might help other families and teens.
"I don't want to think that my daughter just was a number and died for no reason and no purpose, and that she didn't matter because she was from just a working class family," he said.
"But it's hard. Every day is a challenge."
Audio produced by Ben Jamieson.
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