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Visions Journal

Pathways to Ending the Toxic Drug Crisis

Leslie McBain

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 5-7

Stock photo of thoughtful woman looking off into distance

I lost my only child—my beautiful, funny, intelligent 25-year-old son Jordan—to a drug overdose in February of 2014. Losing a child is the most catastrophic event a parent can experience. It kept me in an altered state for a year. It is difficult to walk that thin veil between life and death, but that is what we do. Most families and friends are able to find their new place in life after two or three years, but that’s a long time. Life goes on but is never the same. Grief is always in our hearts.

When I was able to raise my head again, I felt not only the sadness—a cavernous grief—but also a deep curiosity about a system that would not encompass and support the lives of people who use drugs. 

By serendipity I met two other women who had similarly lost their sons to drug harms. We shared a burning need to not let this happen to other families. We created an organization, named it Moms Stop the Harm and secured a Facebook page, email addresses and a website. Within these eight years we have grown from three of us to well over 3,000 members across Canada. Most of our members have lost sons, daughters or loved children, and many members have loved ones who are still struggling. 

Destigmatizing substance use 

Over the years we have become political because of the need to advocate for a sea change in drug policies across the country. We have also started free support groups with trained facilitators: Holding Hope, for families or friends whose loved one is with them or is still struggling with substance use; and Healing Hearts, for those who have lost a loved one to substance use. We work hard to help the public lose their stigma over drug use. People who use drugs are someone’s loved one!

Please bear with me while I go on a bit of a rant. When we take a critical look at both the federal and provincial ministries of health from the viewpoint of the extremely contaminated street drug supply, a drug supply created by organized crime, it’s a head-scratcher. The toxic street supply, which kills about 22 people every day in Canada—about seven people per day in BC—is the only way people who are addicted can access the drugs they need to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Withdrawal is an agonizing and dangerous process. 

Also, those individuals who wish to either experiment or recreate with a substance are accessing this illicit supply. They are dying too. This is not a crisis of addiction, but a crisis of a toxic drug supply. We at Moms Stop the Harm have been advocating for the implementation of pharmaceutical-grade substances that would be accessible to people who need it, just so they won’t die. 

People who are either addicted to, or occasionally using, stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine are also dying or being injured by illicit drugs because, unfortunately, sometimes these include fentanyl and other contaminants. There are really no safe drugs out on the street. People end up in great numbers in our emergency departments or morgues across the land. 
Just because the drugs are illegal and just because the drugs are dangerous does not stop the use. I suspect and sincerely hope there are many individuals out there who know the dangers and therefore may use other substances, such as alcohol, if they need to experience a kind of altered state. Because the number of deaths is rising across the country, we know that knowledge of the toxicity is not translating into less drug use.

Multi-level solutions

Some politicians have weaponized the term harm reduction by saying that, since the drug death toll is rising, harm reduction doesn’t work. The truth is if we didn’t have harm reduction services, such as naloxone, safe consumption services, overdose prevention sites, excellent emergency medical services and so many amazing people working on the front lines with vulnerable people, there would be hundreds and perhaps thousands more deaths every year. 

What is the solution? There isn’t one solution. There are multiple solutions and they are not mutually exclusive. Safer supply is the best and most urgent answer to this crisis. It sounds simple, but in fact, as a solution, it is complex. Government needs to buy in to implement a safe supply for the people who need it. They seem more willing to let people die than to make the sweeping changes to accessibility of a pharmaceutical supply of drugs for people who are dependent. Treatment options must be accessible and evidence based. We need a continuum of care.

Let’s go further upstream. We need to ask the basic question: why are people using illicit substances in the first place? The reason people use drugs, alcohol or other psychoactive substances is to make themselves feel better. People just want to feel better, whether because they want to relax or escape psychic or physical pain, or due to mental health issues, poverty, racism, lack of housing and so on. With many drugs and alcohol, addiction happens. It is an unintended consequence; no one wants to be addicted!

So if we go further upstream, we can better understand and be aware of the mental health of children.  For instance, is a child displaying symptoms of ADHD, extreme anxiety, fear or depression? Has the child experienced trauma in their life? If so, is that child able to be helped by a counsellor, by parents, by a family doctor? Can adaptations be made to help children be more resilient and balanced, given these challenges? Kids with untreated mental health issues are at greater risk of substance use later on.

Connecting with kids

In addition, there must be education in the classroom on the subject of substance use. This doesn’t mean using the “just say no” doctrine, which didn’t work in the past. Education must be fact based, reasonable, interactive and realistic. Some of our members and I have spoken in high schools and in middle schools on this subject. What we’ve found is that kids know much more than we think. They are very open to knowing more, and, if they feel safe in that room, they ask excellent questions. It’s really one of the greatest joys and gifts of my work to talk to kids. 

Parents must also educate themselves on the world of drugs, on the reason kids take drugs and on how to talk to their kids about the risks. Openness, respect and non-judgment are the keys to having a successful parent-to-kid discussion or chat. 

If you happen to be a parent, family member or friend close to a loved one who is struggling with substance use, there are pathways you can take to support that person. Compassion, deep understanding, non-judgment and willingness to just be there are the pillars of supporting someone in their struggle with substances. Harm reduction, such as naloxone, can be a gift to them, too.

Please check out the Moms Stop the Harm Stronger Together support groups. They’re free and there is no commitment. The groups have been so beneficial to so many people! Visit to find a support group near you.

Related Resources

The British Columbia Centre on Substance Use offers many resources for families and caregivers. 


About the author

Leslie is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, a non-profit organization created in 2016 dedicated to supporting the lives of people who use drugs and their families. Leslie lost her 25-year-old son Jordan in 2014 to a drug overdose. Since that time she has strongly advocated for drug policies that actually work

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