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Grieving Maple Ridge mother calls for decriminalization of drugs for Black Balloon Day

Five people died in Maple Ridge this January of suspected illicit drug toxicity overdose
Tommy Picco lost his life to an overdose in October, 2020. (Special to The News)

Tommy Picco was known for three L’s by his family: his love, laughter and loyalty.

But, by the time he died of a drug toxicity overdose at age of 36, Tommy had been struggling with pain and addiction for a very long time.

His mother Debbie Picco remembers her son as a funny, empathetic and loyal person.

His greatest value, she said, was his loyalty, a quality he prized in other people. She said he was always caring for other people and as a child, she added, he was simply hilarious.

Some of the mementos her family has held onto from his short life are tapes of his laughter.

“He just laughed so hard,” said Debbie, thinking of her son.

However, when Tommy was 21, he was helping a friend with some work and popped a disc in his back. And after three back surgeries, the pain just never went away, said Debbie.

He was prescribed OxyContin: which would be the beginning of a life of addiction.

“He was using some cannabis to help relieve some of the pain. Then, as far as we know, he went into harder and harder drugs,” said his mother, who is telling her story in the days approaching Black Balloon Day to bring awareness to the drug toxicity problem across the province.

RELATED: Mother calls for legal drugs after son’s death in Maple Ridge

On Tuesday, Mar. 2, the BC Coroners Service reported there were 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths across the province in January of this year, the largest number of lives lost due to illicit drugs in the first month of a calendar year.

Last year in January there were 81 deaths across the province, making this a 104 per cent increase in fatalities.

Five of the suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths were in Maple Ridge, which is equal to the number of fatal overdoses in the city for the entire year of 2012.

In addition, the report stated one in five of the suspected deaths in January in B.C., or 18 per cent, noted extreme levels of fentanyl concentrations, the largest number recorded to date, and also noting there were 14 deaths involving carfentanil, a more lethal analogue of fentanyl, and an increase in the detection rate of benzodiazepines from 15 per cent in July to 49 per cent in January.

Tommy overdosed at a known drug house in Maple Ridge. An ambulance was called. Paramedics worked on him for 25 minutes before sending him to hospital – but it was too late. He never woke up, said his mom.

His drug toxicity report concluded he had a mixture of fentanyl, heroine, and several other drugs in his system.

Debbie will be putting a black balloon outside her home on Saturday, Mar. 6 to mark Black Balloon Day, a day families and loved ones in countries all over the world remember and celebrate the lives lost to overdose.

Black Balloon Day was started in the United States by Diane and Lauren Hurley in remembrance of Greg Tremblay, a father of four, and a member of their family who died of an overdose when he was only 38 on Mar. 6, 2015.

RELATED: Lives lost too soon to fentanyl

Debbie is also in touch with Moms Stop The Harm, a Canadian network of families who either lost loved ones to a drug overdose, or whose loved ones are active users or in recovery. The group wants a new approach to drugs based on harm reduction, where people who misuse drugs are treated with dignity, respect, compassion and support.

A method that Debbie would like to see in practice locally.

Debbie would like to see safe injection sites established in Maple Ridge and an extension of the heroine replacement therapy that is taking place in Vancouver, where users can go to a clinic and receive heroine that is given to them from a safe supply that they can take in a safe area.

“And they have the wrap-around services to go with it,” said Debbie, who would also like to see drugs decriminalized.

And, most importantly, Debbie would like drug addiction to be treated like a mental health issue.

Tommy, she said, was feeling depressed and it was difficult for him to get help.

“This isn’t a choice people are making to be on drugs,” said Debbie.

“We really need to treat these people – as hard as it is sometimes – with respect and recognize it is a mental health issue that needs to be treated as such, just like any other health issue.”

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Tommy Picco lost his life to an overdose in October, 2020. (Special to The News)

Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

I got my start with Black Press Media in 2003 as a photojournalist.
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