Paul Jaheny can’t talk for long about his son’s death two years ago. The language gets more salty, and his voice starts to crack. But he is willing to tell the story about losing Josh to a fentanyl overdose, because he doesn’t want other parents to feel what he still does.
“I want people to know about the drug,” he said. “Get off the [expletive] pills.”
Josh ‘Big Rigg’ Jaheny was 23 when he died in May 2014. A friend from Alberta was visiting, and they were going to party.
“It’s not like he was a hardcore drug user,” said Paul.
His family may never know the whole story, but Paul said the two young men each put a pill into a drink. They believed it was oxycodone.
Paramedics were called to the house, and worked to try and save him, but couldn’t.
“Josh came into the world in the same way he left it; in his Pitt Meadows home, surrounded by his loving family,” reads his obituary. “He lived fully, loved fiercely, laughed loudly, played competitively and above all else brought joy to those around him.”
Josh was one of the city’s early victims of fentanyl, the synthetic opiate that has caused a wave of overdose deaths across the province. In April, the provincial government declared a public health emergency, after there had been 200 fatal fentanyl overdoses in the first three months of the year.
Fentanyl is similar to morphine, but can be 100 times more potent. Recreational users are misjudging safe amounts to take, or are unaware of the dose.
Public health officials are warning drug users to use small amounts – because other drugs are being laced with fentanyl – to only use with a friend around, and have started a “know your source” information campaign.
“It’s not like these are prescription drugs,” Paul said, “they’re mixed in someone’s bathtub.”
Annika Polegato, the executive director of Alouette Addictions Services, said there is “a tremendous amount” of fentanyl in Maple Ridge.
“We are seeing it in increasing amounts,” she added. “It is a major concern for us.”
It may be as high as 80 per cent of drug users using fentanyl – sometimes unknowingly, she said. There are no solid stats about the drug’s popularity, and police say even drugs they seize and suspect are fentanyl are only lab tested when they are going to be used as evidence in court.
Addictions specialist Dr. Rodney Glynn-Morris of West Vancouver reported that 80 per cent of the urine drug tests he carried out on addict patients were positive for fentanyl, even though they were not aware of it.
That has been the experience of staff at Alouette Addictions, as well, who find fentanyl could be in ecstasy, meth, heroine and other drugs.
“People are using the drug not knowing that it’s cut in with other drugs,” said Polegato.
And addicts are seeking out fentanyl, as a stronger drug that they can use less of, she said.
The result is that an estimated 800 people could die of drug overdoses in the province in 2016.
Locally, the numbers are also spiking. For the six years from 2007 to 2012 the average in Maple Ridge was four overdose deaths per year, with high of six in 2009.
That rose to 10 in 2013, 14 in 2014, and 23 last year. There have been eight in the first three months of 2016.
Maple Ridge’s 23 overdose deaths last year exceeded larger centres like Burnaby (16), Coquitlam (11) and Richmond (5).
There were 480 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in the province in 2015, that was a 31 per cent increase in deaths from 2014.
Preliminary data suggest that the proportion of illicit drug overdose deaths for which fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs) increased to approximately 49 per cent in the first three months of 2016.
The proportion was five per cent in 2012, 15 per cent in 2013, 25 per cent in 2014 and 32 per cent in 2015.
Although fentanyl is the strongest drug Alouette Addictions has ever had experience with, there is a new drug, W-18, which is reportedly 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
“It’s stronger than anything we’ve ever seen. It’s killing people, very quickly,” said Polegato.
She said it is just a matter of time before it arrives on the streets of Maple Ridge.
“We know it’s been found in Calgary, and we know it’s been in the Okanagan, so it’s not realistic to think it won’t come here.”
Experimenting with drugs has turned deadly.
“Ideally, we try to encourage kids to be safe, and not use,” Polegato said.
She said parents need to start having conversations about drug use with their children no later than when they reach high school.
“If anybody in the community has someone in their life who is using and they want help, they should come to us,” she said. “There is no charge, no waiting list, and people can come in and ask questions about their mother, brother or child.”
Those who will use are urged to contact Alouette Addictions for Narcan training, to not use alone, and to use in small amounts.
“It’s a reality of life – people are going to use drugs,” said Polegato.
For ‘Big Rigg’
Brandon Stone lived in the same cul de sac as Josh Jaheny. They grew up together and were good friends.
“He had tons of friends,” he said. “I’ve known him my entire life.”
He is the organizer of a slo-pitch tournament on Pitt Meadows Day that is equal parts sporting event and celebration of life.
The event is a memorial to Josh.
Stone said the tournament organizers get together with six team captains, and pick their six teams in “a school-yard draft.”
They play out the memorial tournament in a one-day event at Pitt Meadows Athletic Park, with a trophy presented to the winning team. Funds are raised through entry fees, by 50/50 draws and with a donation jar.
They hope to raise a $1,200 donation to Canucks Place in Jaheny’s memory.
Stone said it cost him $750 to book the ball fields for the day, and he wanted to acknowledge event sponsors: Charles Joseph Plastering, T&T Auto Parts, DLC Plumbing and Heating, TireCraft Port Coquitlam and Diva Hair Design.
“We just get out and play, and have a good time in the memory of Josh.”