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Richmond families fight stigma surrounding toxic drug overdose crisis

‘And with something like the opioid crisis… the cost of a single mistake is so high’: Louise Coatta

“I’ve lost one person a month since my brother died to these drugs, like it’s so common now,” said Richmond resident Trevor Tablotney.

“And it’s the same story with almost all by themselves, in their bedroom or in their apartment.”

Trevor’s brother Curtis passed away from a drug overdose six months ago in 2022.

“My brother, on Dec. 14, passed away. He was one of two men in Richmond on that day. And just like many other men, he died while playing PlayStation in his bedroom,” Trevor told attendees at a recent Richmond rally to mourn lives lost to the toxic drug crisis.

According to BC Coroners Services’ latest statistics, almost half of unregulated drug deaths in B.C. so far this year have taken place in private homes, another 31 per cent in other types of residences and 15.8 per cent outside.

Last year, the majority toxic drug deaths in Richmond – at least 18 out of 29 – happened indoors.

Trevor attributes this to the social stigma faced by people using drugs.

“We’ve isolated (drug users) so no one knows they’re doing the drugs because they have to do them by themselves,” he said. “It starts out social, where you’re doing it with friends. And as you get older, you end up doing them by yourself.”

Trevor remembers his 36-year-old brother as a kind and energetic person with a deep compassion for animals. Curtis enjoyed socializing and connecting with others, but he struggled with stigma, not feeling accepted in society because of his drug use.

“As a family member, it’s hard to watch and go through,” said Trevor.

Not just adults dying

The majority of people dying from toxic drugs are between 30 and 59 years old, but this doesn’t mean teenagers aren’t affected. In the first four months of 2023, eight people under 18 years old died from drug poisonings in B.C.

In 2022, this number was 34, including 16-year-old Ronan Downey-Price, a student at Hugh Boyd secondary.

His father, Art Price, said what hurts is the questions he’s left with after losing his son.

Around Easter weekend, Ronan got some pills, but from where and why is a mystery to Art.

Although police officers took evidence from Ronan’s room, the investigation never went very far.

“You’re never going to be able to find the people who sell or make this stuff – or find out why or how a… 16-year-old child would get involved it,” said Art. “But the police just aren’t able to take these investigations very far.”

“We will never find out. That’s another thing that really hurts – knowing that we’ll never be able to get justice for his death.” 

Art describes his son’s gorgeous smile and love of running and weightlifting.

Father-and-son memories include trips to Vancouver Island hunting for fossils and watching Ronan craft weapons such as stone axes.

“He was caring, he was giving, he was generous,” Art said. “He always thought of others.”

Lack of supports

Two years have passed since 25-year-old Tristan Coatta passed away from a drug poisoning, and his parents, Louise and Terry, still grapple with their loss.

Stigma has made talking about his death difficult.

His parents feel isolated, as friends and family are unsure of how to broach the topic of mental health and drug addiction.

Louise said one of the hardest things is the perception that people addicted to drugs are “disposable” and “they have made a choice that makes their lives not valuable or less valuable than a person judging them.”

“I challenge that,” said Louise.

“Everybody has their own path through life, their own challenges, their own triumphs and their own defeats. And it could have been any of us who, for one reason or another, finds themselves in incredibly difficult situations.

“And with something like the opioid crisis… the cost of a single mistake is so high.”

The Coattas hope the more people speak out – as they did at a recent Richmond rally to raise awareness about the toxic drug crisis – the easier it will be to have such conversations.

“Hopefully, we get to the point where these conversations are happening, not after a death, but while somebody is struggling,” said Louise.

Tristan was an intelligent, funny and loyal son and friend who expressed his creativity through photography, cooking and creating ornately decorated aquariums. He was studying to become a software developer.

But he struggled with his self-worth, making him sensitive to any criticism, Terry explained.

Like many parents and loved ones, Terry and Louise tried to find help for Tristan, but the services and support offered seemed “utterly disconnected.”

“There’s no central person that you could go to and say, ‘Can you help find out what resources are available for this?’ Or, ‘What things would be appropriate in these circumstances?’” said Terry.

“You kind of just had to do everything yourself, down to the last little detail.”

The Tablotneys also struggled for years to find help for Curtis.

It was an endless cycle in and out of hospital, with overdoses and detoxes, but inevitably, Curtis would quickly be released from hospital.

Trevor felt his parents were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although they wanted to keep Curtis safe, his behaviour would sometimes pose a risk to them.

Changing the conversation

Like Louise, Trevor thinks the conversation about the toxic drug crisis needs to change, starting from media portrayal.

Furthermore, he doesn’t think drug use and mental well-being should be treated as “synonymous.”

In hindsight, his tough love approach with Curtis wasn’t effective for this very reason.

“I was constantly treating him as though it was the drugs that were the problem. But it wasn’t necessarily that, it was a number of factors,” he said. This included a long-undiagnosed mental illness.

Trevor encourages friends and families to communicate openly with their loved ones who are using drugs and encourage them to use safely.

“My mistake was thinking that you could force him into wanting the help… But unless somebody wants off the drugs, they're not going to get off the drugs,” he said.

Division over safe-consumption sites

City council has remained divided on the issue of safe-injection sites.

Coun. Chak Au took a “principled” stance against safe-injection sites during the last election, while Coun. Kash Heed has argued one is needed in Richmond as people will not travel to downtown Vancouver to consume drugs safely.

Au told the News safe-injection sites “don’t work” and noted since they’ve been in existence, even more people are dying of toxic drugs. He prefers to focus on anti-drug campaigns.

Trevor disagrees, adding the keyword is autonomy.

With drugs laced with powerful opioids such as fentanyl, any agency a drug user has is stripped away. 

“We’re taking away their right to… doing a safe drug. To doing the drug that they intend on doing.”

He thinks a different approach, similar to the legalization of cannabis, should be explored.

“Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, it didn’t work for marijuana, it doesn’t work for drugs,” said Trevor.

“People will do things that they consider to be taboo, just because. And they will do it in the shadows, they will do it by themselves.”

This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government's alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It's available 24 hours a day.

- With files from Maria Rantanen