Kat Wahamaa with pictures of her son Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, 25, who died of a fentanyl overdose last August. She is working to bring a resiliency conference to Maple Ridge. (NEWS files)

Drug user groups part of community resilience conversation

Women who lost son to overdose organizing conference in Maple Ridge

A woman who lost her son to an overdose recently attended a forum in Abbotsford, and is planning to bring a similar event to Maple Ridge.

Kat Wahamaa attended Abbotsford’s day-long Drug User Groups and Community Resilience Conference on Dec. 6. She said that city shares a lot in common with Maple Ridge, in that both are communities of about 100,000 where there are divisions about how to deal with the homeless population.

“The more dialogue we can have about the whole fentanyl poisoning issue, and addiction, and the resulting homelessness, the better,” said Wahamaa.

“I am looking for ways in which we can come together to deal with this issue.”

Wahamaa considers the whole opioid overdose epidemic an issue of “fentanyl poisoning,” because this relatively new drug is deadly, and is being used by many drug users without their knowledge.

“It’s a huge trauma happening to the whole province – and the whole world.”

Her own son Joseph, who had been addicted to Oxycontin, died at the age of 25 after taking a lethal dose of fentanyl. He had been in recovery, and had been on methadone, and relapsed.

She is doing a masters of education in art and social change, has been a Maple Ridge artist in residence, and is a social activist and a member of the Raging Grannies.

“I thought it was a very helpful discussion,” she said of the Abbotsford conference. “Recognizing how important drug user groups as partners in helping to develop solutions is vital.”

It is critical to talk to communicate with drug users, and people with lived experience, and take an evidence-based approach to addiction.

“We have a lack of people really wanting to delve into what works best,” she said.“We’re had a very failed drug policy for 100 years. Blame, shame and incarceration are not the way to deal with this.”

Groups including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the BC/Yukon Associations of Drug War Survivors attended the Abbotsford conference.

Wahamaa also heard from other parents and family members who had lost loved ones, who attended alongside officials from Fraser Health, the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Ministry of Public Safety, the criminology department from the University of the Fraser Valley and “a wide-ranging group of organizations.”

She wants people to be informed as Maple Ridge wrestles with issues like how to help its homeless population, and where to put modular housing for the residents of Anita Place Tent City.

“So much of our resistance is fear of recognizing them as humans, just like the rest of us,” she said.

She said addicts are not “failed people” who are continually making a choice to do drugs.

“It’s a complex issue, and it looks like they are making choices, but they are not,” she said. It’s not a happy feeling, they’re just doing something that makes them feel like they’re not dying.”

“It would take so little to do so much to assist this problem.”

Wahamaa said she is feeling strong enough to help address addiction. She is publicly involved in the issue, and has read books like “The Unbroken Brain.” She wants to make sure people know the facts – facts she didn’t have when her son was in crisis.

“There’s so much information that I wish I had…”

Wahamaa will be talking with the Abbotsford event organizers, and then take the next steps toward a similar conference in her hometown.

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