A woman who thought she was ingesting cocaine died of an overdose last summer. Her husband says the only illicit drug found in her system was fentanyl.

Husband of Peninsula overdose victim speaks to tragedy

Planning continues for fentanyl forum to address trend that has taken deadly toll in South Surrey, White Rock

The woman – a gainfully employed, well-liked mother on the Semiahmoo Peninsula – had done cocaine before.

She wasn’t an addict or even a regular user. Those who knew her said she took the illicit stimulant “on occasion.”

But on a night out last summer, the woman took what she believed was cocaine for the last time, fatally overdosing on a substance that was later determined to be laced with fentanyl.

“That was the only drug that was in there,” the woman’s spouse told Peace Arch News Wednesday.

“It wasn’t cocaine at all.”

The man – who said he isn’t ready to speak at length publicly about what happened – described this year’s epidemic of fatal overdoses, and the link to fentanyl in particular, as “just a real tragedy.”

As of Oct. 31, 622 people in B.C. have died of overdoses, with an estimated 60 per cent of those linked to the deadly opiate.

The mother’s death, which occurred in Surrey, “was felt very strongly” on the Peninsula, said George Passmore, manager of counselling and substance-use services for Sources Community Resource Centres.

“The shockwave of her loss – it was devastating for a great many people,” he said. “She was very loved.”

Passmore cited the tragedy as an example of fentanyl’s local impact. While officials say there is a perception that the crisis is largely a North Surrey and Downtown Eastside issue, the reality is fentanyl has reared its head in both South Surrey and White Rock on more than that one occasion this year.

Last month, two men, aged 34 and 58, died in separate overdose incidents in one weekend in White Rock; in one, two children were present in the home. That same weekend, police in South Surrey responded to an overdose involving a 30-year-old man.

And in September, a 20-year-old South Surrey woman died after ingesting what her family described as an “accidental but deadly concoction of prescription and non-prescription” drugs.

“Certainly, this is unprecedented,” Passmore said of the death toll associated with a single substance. “We’ve never had to be thinking about mortality on this frequent a basis.”

Passmore is among local officials and experts who convened at Sources’ White Rock office last Friday afternoon to brainstorm ways to raise awareness on the Semiahmoo Peninsula that receiving fentanyl-laced drugs is a possibility for anyone who decides to use – whether as an addict or a first-time user.

“The risk profile is spread,” Passmore said. “It’s never been more likely than it is now.”

Authorities say the drug’s potency and relatively low cost has been a draw for dealers, who have been using it increasingly in recent years to cut their product and maximize profits.

A lethal dose is estimated to be the equivalent of about two grains of salt.

Steps are ongoing at municipal, provincial and federal levels to  address the crisis. Last week, Health Canada announced regulatory changes aimed at restricting access to six chemicals that are used to make fentanyl; and on Tuesday, Fraser Health announced efforts to establish two safe-consumption sites in Surrey, as well as boost access to opioid-substitution treatments in Abbotsford and Maple Ridge.

The latter is needed locally, Passmore said, noting there are currently no doctors on the Semiahmoo Peninsula who prescribe the heroin substitute, suboxane.

A community forum is being planned for the new year, but exactly how it will look is still being determined. Passmore and others involved – the effort is being co-ordinated by Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg – say stories like that of the woman who died last summer will be key.

“These are just everyday people. These are your friends, your family… caring people and loving people, and contributing to society,” Hogg said. “It’s not as easy to push away and say it’s somebody else’s issue.”

Passmore said his vision for the forum isn’t of instilling fear, but of dialogue and engagement focused on reversing the trend.

Hogg said efforts to raise awareness prior to Christmas will include distribution of posters and handheld cards created by Fraser Health regarding fentanyl. They will be distributed through organizations including youth groups, the chamber of commerce and local businesses, he said.

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