‘It could’ve been avoided:’ Mother of young drug overdose victim recalls lack of help available

On Overdose Awareness Day, families are remembering their loved ones lost to addiction and advocating for change. Faiza Amin with one mother’s desperate attempts to save her son, and the help she says was not there.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

On International Overdose Awareness Day, one Ontario mother who lost her son to an overdose is encouraging community services and health officials to do more to prevent drug poisoning deaths.

Tammy Gould lost her son Marcus William Mason Gould when he was just 17 years old to a drug overdose in 2020.

Gould tells CityNews that carfentanil, an opioid 100 times stronger than fentanyl, was detected in his system.

When COVID-19 hit, life and football opportunities faded for the high schooler, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome while facing mental health issues.

“He was just lost mentally, physically,” said Gould, admitting that they struggled to find help for Marcus in the months preceding his death.

The teen had stopped coming back to their home in Grafton, and street drugs became easily accessible to him.

Children’s Aid Society got involved because he was under 18. He also had repeated interactions with police from when he was spending time in the nearby town of Coburg, where Marcus had been going to school. On one occasion, Gould recalled an interaction between officers and Marcus, who was with a friend.

“[The officer] said that he was, they both, seemed to be in a state of psychosis – [at] 17 years old,” remembered Gould. “And he said to Children’s Aid that Marcus will fall prey to the street… and he didn’t take him in.”

Marcus passed away in July.

“I got a call saying to go to the hospital. He was dead on the table,” said Gould. “When I walked into the room, they were pumping on him… and they never called to say, your boys on the street. How can we help you bring him back.”

She asked for both the Children’s Aid Society and the police to review and investigate how they handled her son’s case, but she tells CityNews not much came out of that request.

Angie Hamilton, the Executive Director of Families for Addiction Recovery (FAR), tells CityNews that acute drug toxicity is the current number one cause of death for youth in Ontario aged 15 to 24.

“The kids are not all right, and as horrific as that is, that’s not the main story. The main story is that we have no urgent response to that crisis from any level of government,” said Hamilton, noting that governments are not working together or with the families of those affected by these tragedies.

“The system is causing trauma to families affected by addiction and the toxic crisis, and we need to serve an urgent response.”

Sadly, Hamilton said Gould’s story is not rare these days.

“Substance use is something that if it’s the earlier you use a substance, the greater the likelihood of becoming addicted. So its early use is a big risk factor, which I think most people don’t understand.”

She added there’s a huge lack of services available for youths who have become addicts.

“The youth have fewer services than the adults, which is incomprehensible, but I think society, in general, is sort of looked at this as something that happens to people who are bad, and therefore it’s not going to happen to children,” explained Hamilton.

“The reality is, it’s an illness, and it can happen to anybody, including pretty young adolescents.”

“I think a lack of understanding [and] stigma in society prevents us from investing in the resources to treat people and to provide harm reduction services,” she added.

The federal government said 2021 was the worst year ever for opioid-related overdoses, with 21 deaths recorded per day in Canada.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said a number of factors have contributed to the worsening drug crisis, including an increasingly toxic drug supply and a lack of accessibility to services for people who use drugs.

In the city of Toronto, there was also a spike in drug overdose deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, often referred to as the shadow pandemic. Preliminary data for 2021 found an 87 per cent increase in drug poisoning deaths from 2019, a total of 560 lives lost and the highest number of deaths in one year.

So far, in 2022, paramedics have responded to 172 fatal suspected opioid overdose calls while drug-checking services in Toronto continue to find unexpected, highly potent drugs in samples.

FAR is calling for more funding to address the drug toxicity crisis on all levels.

“We have to make sure that people, no matter where they live in Canada, have access to the medications to treat opioid use disorder and other mental health conditions, frankly. So treatment on demand, resources for treatment on demand, funding for harm reduction services, and drug policy reform.

Hamilton said, based on her personal experience with families, they were aware their kids could use dangerous drugs and prohibition of these drugs doesn’t stop that.

“That’s reality, and at some point, we must accept reality,” said Hamilton. “We have to look at the best way to protect people using these substances because they deserve our protection. And the best way to do that is to regulate the substance.”

It’s up to the government to begin regulating these substances as they do with cannabis and alcohol, Hamilton implored.

“Kudos to the federal government for decriminalizing small amounts of drugs being held for personal use in [British Columbia]. But we need that nationally and urgently.”

Currently, Vancouver and Toronto are the only other jurisdictions to request an exemption from Health Canada to legalize small amounts of drugs.

Gould said the impact on her family has been extremely difficult. “I’m big enough to hold my own, but our family is different, and it could’ve been avoided.”

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