Lori Jenks sits with a photo of her brother Brian Jenks taken as a youth. Lori and her two siblings grew up in Salmon Arm. Brian died in October 2021 due to ingesting fentanyl and benzodiazepine, a victim in Canada’s opioid crisis. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)

Lori Jenks sits with a photo of her brother Brian Jenks taken as a youth. Lori and her two siblings grew up in Salmon Arm. Brian died in October 2021 due to ingesting fentanyl and benzodiazepine, a victim in Canada’s opioid crisis. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)

‘Everyone’s best friend’ dies from toxic drugs in Salmon Arm, sister lobbies for safe drug supply

Family, health-care professionals see removing stigma of addictions also key to saving lives

Brian Jenks was very well loved by his family and friends.

“Out of all my family, people always gravitated to him the most,” said his sister Lori Jenks, two years his junior. “A couple of people said at the memorial, they’d never known anybody with so many best friends. Everyone that met him considered him their best friend.”

Lori remembers one time when she came home at midnight and found she was locked out of her house. Brian came right over to help.

“He was really easy-going and really funny; he had a really good sense of humour.”

Brian Jenks died in October of 2021, a couple of weeks after his 52nd birthday. He was living in a suite in his mother’s house in Salmon Arm. When she came home from a couple of days in Vancouver, she found him dead.

An autopsy revealed fentanyl and benzodiazepines in his system. Benzodiazepines are described as a class of drugs which are depressants – they lower brain activity.

Lori explained that Brian had a history of drug use, starting in his late twenties. He was using morphine and had struggled several times to get off it, with some success.

Brian moved to Grand Prairie, Alta., for a number of years where he had his own pipe-fitting business. There he managed to get off morphine with the help of methadone treatment.

However, some time later, he met the wrong people and fell back into it, Lori said.

“He had come back for Christmas and we noticed he was sick. It didn’t seem to be a big deal, though.”

About five years ago Brian moved back to Salmon Arm. He was doing well, working in the industrial park for a couple of years. Because he stayed in his mom’s suite he could help her out, which she appreciated.

This past summer he started acting strange and withdrawn, which was one of the signs he was doing drugs again, Lori said.

“We’d all talk to him, my mom, my sister and me, at different times. He assured us he knew what he was doing.”

Then Brian had a really bad experience with something, Lori said. He came home and his car was a mess.

“He had obviously hit something. He didn’t remember anything. That really scared him.”

Lori said he appeared to be doing well, not using, for about three weeks. Their mom felt comfortable he would be OK when she was away in Vancouver.

Read more: BC Nurses Union calls for decriminalization of opioids

Brian’s family is certain he didn’t intend to die that day.

He was a great help to his mom, 78, and his dad, 80.

“It was nice because he wasn’t working the past year or so. That’s all he did was help them. We’re sure he didn’t mean to kill himself. He had all kinds of plans with my mom, things they were going to do with the house, things they were planning on achieving.”

Lori said it wasn’t until they found how many needles he’d had that it was clear what an addiction problem he was dealing with.

“It was just such a small part of who he was, we didn’t realize how bad he was. With this fentanyl crisis, it’s not like being an alcoholic who slowly dies over months or years. It just drops you, you get a bad batch and, that’s it, no chance of getting better.”

She wonders about so much money going to support people regarding COVID-19, when so many deaths continue from drugs laced with fentanyl.

“I’ve written to politicians and our local MP. I just think it’s ludicrous it’s illegal. If it was legalized and prescribed, nobody would have to die. I don’t see the difference between taking heroin and morphine to feel better, when people who take anti-depressants are doing the same.

“They (society) have decided that one is OK and another is not. This war on drugs isn’t helping anybody, it’s just making gangs and criminals richer.”

Read more: B.C. judge ignores precedent, rejects jail time for addict caught trafficking fentanyl

Lori said she doesn’t think her brother was really aware of how bad fentanyl is, thinking he could handle a small amount.

“But it takes a very small amount to kill you. If it was produced by a pharmaceutical company, they would know how much would be safe.”

Lori said she’d picked up a naloxone kit just weeks before Brian died.

“There’s so much shame and stigma about it, he wouldn’t get help. And of course naloxone only helps if someone is there to give it to you.”

She said addictions are hard to overcome and one little slip-up shouldn’t cost someone their life.

“Especially when it’s avoidable, if there was a safe supply.”

She said with a safe injection site, someone would have been there to give Brian naloxone, or perhaps he would have been able to test the drugs.

“I definitely think there needs to be more understanding of what these people are going through.”

Lori said a few months ago someone posted a photo online of somebody falling asleep on their feet in Tim Hortons, and the person who posted it was laughing. Lori said help is what the person needed, not to be mocked.

Lori’s thoughts on having a safe drug supply and reducing the stigma around drug use are echoed by some who work in the health professions.

In December 2021, the BC Coroners Service convened the second of two death review panels into illicit drug toxicity deaths. Since the first one, which reviewed 1,854 deaths from illicit toxic drugs in B.C. between Jan. 1, 2016 and July 31, 2017, the death toll has kept climbing. About 6,000 more B.C. residents have died. In 2021 in Interior Health, 371 people died of toxic drugs.

This graph shows the increase in Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in Interior Health, based on data provided by the BC Coroners Service. (BC Centre for Disease Control image)

This graph shows the increase in Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in Interior Health, based on data provided by the BC Coroners Service. (BC Centre for Disease Control image)

The second report was released on March 9, 2022, with a deadline of May 9 for an action plan from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. The report makes three main recommendations regarding the drug crisis: 1) ensure a safe drug supply for those at risk of dying from the toxic drugs; 2) develop a 30/60/90-day illicit drug toxicity action plan with ongoing monitoring; and 3) establish an evidence-based continuum of care.

Dr. Carol Fenton is a Medical Health Officer with Interior Health. She said after a public health emergency was declared in 2016 in B.C. regarding the toxic drug supply, “great progress was made in 2018 and 2019” in terms of death rates. However, since then, the pandemic has undone the improvements and “everything is worse than we’ve ever seen before,” she said.

She sees three reasons contributing to the escalation, one being the message that people reduce contact with others during the pandemic, which is contrary to having supervised consumption of drugs.

Another factor has been the increasing toxicity of the street supply, which includes a higher concentration of fentanyl, as well as the addition of benzodiazepine, a sedative that doesn’t respond to the naloxone reversal agent.

Thirdly is the introduction of fentanyl in stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, which can be even more dangerous to someone who has not been taking sedatives and has no tolerance to them.

This graph shows the increase in Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in all health authorities in B.C., based on data provided by the BC Coroners Service. (BC Centre for Disease Control image)

This graph shows the increase in Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in all health authorities in B.C., based on data provided by the BC Coroners Service. (BC Centre for Disease Control image)

Staff Sgt. Scott West with the Salmon Arm RCMP said the most prevalent drugs in the Salmon Arm area currently are cocaine, methamphetamine and opioids. The opioids are laced with fentanyl but even the other two drugs contain fentanyl occasionally, West said.

On Feb. 16, 2022, School District 83 posted an “urgent drug alert” on its website, stating Interior Health had requested the school district’s help to raise awareness that extreme levels of fentanyl and benzodiazepines had been found in the street drugs tested in our region.

Fenton sees the lethal drug situation analogous to dangers during alcohol prohibition, “when you didn’t know what you were drinking, you didn’t know what was in it, you didn’t know who made it. And now, if someone wants alcohol, they can go to a safe place to buy it, correctly labelled with the amount, the concentration, the type, and then they can dose themselves accordingly.”

She said a safe drug supply would eliminate the need for some people to commit crimes to support their additions, one of many factors that would benefit society as a whole. Even the high price of housing is mentioned as a side effect of the money laundering that takes place as a result of organized crime’s involvement in the drug trade, according to an article on Heroin Compassion Clubs from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

Another issue Fenton raises, like Lori Jenks, is the crucial need to reduce the stigma around drug use.

“Right now we don’t have stigma for people who use alcohol or who use cannabis or who drink coffee, so if we can normalize that, then it opens things up for people to talk about their use and whether or not their use is helpful or harmful, and helps people to really cope with their issues if they need substances to do that, or manage their pain themselves, or to seek help if they need it.”

Fenton said one positive is the way more people, including health-care workers, are talking about addictions and the services now available. She said in many places, night staff are trained in administering naloxone.

“So we’ve made a lot of progress but at the same time, we have a ways to go.”

She noted Salmon Arm is one of five communities in the province with an integrated treatment team offering a variety of services for substance use as well as mental health.

Fenton said one of the challenges to the work can be collaboration, as there’s the provincial health system, and within it the mental health and substance use department, as well as public health which includes the medical health officers. Also, if all the voices are actually heard, action can take time. Another factor is that decriminalization lies with the federal government.

However, Fenton said, some groups are successfully distributing small amounts of safe supply.

Lori’s hope is that telling Brian’s story might help someone who is addicted to drugs or might push people to lobby for legalization.

“People live on morphine all the time. It’s OK to prescribe for a physical problem if you have arthritis. Mental health is treated differently. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have an addiction to something, it might not be a drug. I think we need to stop judging people and start taking care of them.”

She speaks of the pain of her family’s loss.

“You don’t ever think something like that will happen to you. It could be anybody in a family. It could be the first time you tried this stuff. It’s just devastating,” she said tearfully. “This is a person that was going to be there. He’s been there my whole life. And we’ve always been a really close family, it just affects everything.”

Read more: Interior Health warns of fentanyl contaminated crack-cocaine in Penticton

Read more: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history


martha.wickett@saobserver.net
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