Julie Raymond would love it if no teenager ever took ecstasy again, so other parents could be spared the grief she felt after her 16-year-old daughter Shannon overdosed.
But she knows that isn’t realistic.
“The reality is the pills cost $5 and you can hide them anywhere. It’s not like carrying around a bottle of alcohol, and it is more accessible to get than alcohol because you can be any age to buy ecstasy [from a dealer],” Raymond said.
As a result, some school districts in B.C. are choosing to educate children about how to use the drug more safely rather than rely solely on a message of abstinence.
Even the provincial health officer believes regulating pharmaceutical MDMA, known popularly as ecstasy, might save more lives than driving the manufacture of the drug to clandestine labs with a policy of prohibition.
Shannon, an avid athlete, took ecstasy during a friend’s birthday celebration in July 2008 and then fatally overdosed later that night while sleeping over at another teen’s house in Maple Ridge.
(The homeowner was charged with failing to provide sufficient medical assistance to Shannon, but was acquitted earlier this year.)
Since the death of her husband to cancer in 1998, Raymond said she has always been open with her two daughters about life’s adversities, including the dangers of using drugs and alcohol.
Raymond said she never, ever thought her daughter would die of an overdose, and now strongly believes young people need to be armed with the knowledge about what to do if they or their friends decide to experiment with a drug like ecstasy.
That includes educating young people about the warning signs of when someone might be overdosing, and encouraging them to call 9-1-1 right away - despite their fears about getting into trouble.
“It’s better to have an angry parent than a dead friend,” said Raymond, who wants to start a campaign to warn teens about the toxins often mixed with pure ecstasy by unscrupulous dealers.
“It’s what’s under your kitchen sink and what’s in your bathroom medicine cabinet that has long expired,” she said.
Raymond’s daughter knew Ali Mosdell, a 21-year-old Maple Ridge woman who fatally overdosed in July 2011 in a case that prompted police to warn the public again about ecstasy use.
Ecstasy-related deaths claimed 15 lives in B.C. in 2011. The numbers spiked in late 2011 and early 2012, when several of the B.C. victims – and at least five in Calgary - were found to have taken ecstasy laced with a toxin called PMMA.
Those deaths include Cheryl McCormack, 17, and Tyler Miller, 20, both from Abbotsford, who died in late 2011.
The people responsible for making the toxic ecstasy that killed McCormack and Miller have never been charged.
Abbotsford police spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald said the challenge for police is that ecstasy and other street drugs are often sold through social networks, so the so-called dealers can “be anyone from the distributor to the dial-a-doper to your best friend.”
In March, the federal government heightened ecstasy’s status in the criminal code, meaning producers and traffickers will likely face stiffer jail terms.
But some top medical officials, including B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall, have argued the move is not likely to curb the use or dangers of street ecstasy.
Instead, Kendall would like to see a debate about the possible regulation of pure ecstasy (MDMA), which would reduce the demand for black market ecstasy cooked up in clandestine labs.
“There’s an argument that if you are taking chemically pure MDMA in the appropriate dosage, that that can be a relatively harmless phenomenon,” Kendall said.
“These are all fairly complex problems, but you have to say that making it illegal hasn’t kept the illicit drugs .... out of the hands of younger people.”
In the meantime, Kendall’s advice to young people is to avoid using pills if they don’t know the ingredients; but if they insist on taking the pills, then they should not take more than one to try to avoid overdosing, have a sober person with them, and “not be shy about seeking medical attention when you feel ill.”
The Abbotsford police department produced a powerful video chronicling the deaths of Miller and McCormack, and the two victims’ friends are now helping to show it at local high schools.
Const. John Davidson, a member of the Abbotsford youth squad, believes taking ecstasy is a risk that should be avoided, but added those who do take it must be equipped with the tools to recognize the signs of an overdose.
Davidson acknowledges the old-school abstinence mantra hasn’t resonated with all young people.
“The traditional message of just saying no, or us telling them not to do it, hasn’t worked and I think you just have to be a bit more realistic about it,” he said.
The Centre for Addictions Research (CAR) of B.C. at the University of Victoria has developed curriculum for Grades 6 to 10 called iMinds, which the literature says “aims to help students maximize their drug literacy - the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive in a world where drug use is common.”
CARBC assistant director Dan Reist said the take-home message of the curriculum “might mean [students] use less or not at all, it might mean they use in less risky ways, or maybe it doesn’t change their behaviour but puts the cohort around them in a better way to help them [during an overdose].”
The relatively new alternative curriculum is being used in some schools in West Vancouver and Vernon, as well as in other pockets across B.C. It was also downloaded from the centre’s website more than 200 times in the spring, mostly by educators.
Reist said many school boards appear interested in addressing substance use by students, but acknowledged it is a complex topic and that parents will have different opinions about what should be taught in classes.
A recent study by CARBC found that among people aged 19 and older who use drugs recreationally at parties or raves, the number taking ecstasy has nearly doubled in the last four years.
-Lori Culbert is with the Vancouver Sun
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