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Greater Victoria MLA Adam Olsen reveals past drug use in an attempt to end stigma

MLA for Saanich North and the Islands talks about cocaine, other substance use in his 20s
Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, speaks about drug use during a speech in the legislature. (Government of British Columbia)

Greater Victoria MLA Adam Olsen says he is speaking about his past cocaine use now to help prevent deaths.

“Over the last few months, a growing number of people in my expanded circle have passed away, unfortunately,” he said. “I’m an elected person … and I need to show leadership by talking about the experiences that I have had in my past and hope that by talking about those experiences, I can be part of the de-stigmatization that we need in order to actually get the programs and services that are saving lives.”

Olsen made this comment after speaking in the Legislative Assembly Thursday morning and after giving a television interview, during which he revealed he used cocaine in his 20s.

“It has taken a lot of personal growth and a lot of personal work to be at peace with my past,” he said. “There is an expectation that people in elected leadership show that leadership. It’s a significant part of who I am, but it is also not something that I have talked about broadly and I think that it is useful that there are positive examples of people who have worked their way through the trauma and challenges in their life to be in a position of contributing to their community and I have that story.”

Olsen said the response from colleagues and the public-at-large meant it was the right thing to do. “My hope is that by stepping up and sharing this story, that will provide a level of safety and a level of encouragement to my colleagues, who may also have this part of the story, to say, ‘look, it’s okay.’ So often our political organizations, our politicians want to manage this like an existentialist threat to the political party.” That aspect has only worsened the stigma, he said.

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Growing up, Olsen said the divorce of his parents hit him pretty hard. “I lived a pretty good life growing up as a kid, but I struggled with that in high school and it spilled over into my early 20s. What is important to understand about trauma is that it doesn’t take a whole lot to traumatize somebody. It could be a physical trauma – somebody getting injured at work or somebody who gets injured in sports and gets prescribed an opioid – or somebody who is carrying a psychological trauma. For me, it was a psychological trauma and I was self-medicating.”

This self-medication included a range of substances.

“My 20s were rough — tobacco, coffee, sugar, cannabis, cocaine,” he said during his speech in the assembly. “I had an unhealthy relationship with myself and I abused these substances. I’m indeed a lucky one.”

Olsen said his use of those substances covered the whole range. “When it came to tobacco, I was straight-up addicted,” he said. “Cocaine, I was addicted for a time as well. So it is a matter of recognizing that there is a wide range of use.”

Olsen, 45, said his life changed when he met his partner Emily, who did not know about his past for several months before he eventually revealed that history. “When we met, she told me she wasn’t into hanging out with people who use substances,” he said. “I was really looking for a way out (of using drugs). I was afraid that she was going to take off on me if I told her where I was at in life. Instead, I made the decision, ‘I was going to change.’”

Olsen, who described himself as psychologically exhausted before that moment, said he experienced a 90-degree turn in his life. “It was a pretty remarkable moment,” he said. “I have gotten myself 90 per cent there and when I met Emily, it was an opportunity to make a total break. I kept myself close to home and very much fell in love. And just talking about this, what was more powerful than those drugs and substances, was the love that Emily and I had.”

Speaking earlier in the provincial assembly, Olsen said “she didn’t know it at the time, but she saved my life.”

Olsen also used that occasion to catalogue the public pain drugs are causing, noting there were 1,204 illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and July. Almost eight out of 10 were men and most of them were aged 30 to 59, with 85 per cent dying in their own homes.

“My peers are dying at a shocking rate,” he added.

It is against this personal and public background, that Olsen ended his speech with an appeal for more action. “I now look to this chamber and ask that we move with greater urgency so that more friends and family don’t need luck to make their contribution to the community,” he said.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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