Caught in Canada’s opioid crisis
Nick Jansen has found himself in the middle of Canada’s opioid crisis. He lost his brother and girlfriend to fentanyl overdoses this year and has himself battled addiction. Now he and his mother have become loud voices advocating for changes to the system. They are both attending Canada’s first federal opioid summit, which is being held in Ottawa this weekend. We spoke to Nick ahead of the conference where photos of his brother and girlfriend were displayed at the entrance.
Earlier this month you revealed to a group of high school students during an anti-drug talk that, like your brother, you have struggled with a fentanyl addiction.
I was pretty into the drug scene as a young teenager. I hung out with a lot of my older brother’s friends who were three times my age. On my 16th birthday is when I first tried fentanyl. They were selling drugs. I felt like I was out of place, I was trying to fit in. when you’re around people like that and you’re young, you don’t want to feel like you’re weak. My brother was like ‘hey, we have this new drug that this guy is selling, it’s Oxy80s.’ And I had done Oxy before, but then he’s like ‘no but it’s fake Oxy, it’s fentanyl.’ And I thought I had done a lot of opiates and I would have a high tolerance.
After about a week, I tried to stop. I realized I’m spending $200 a day. I tried to stop and I didn’t get immediate withdrawals or sick. But I went crazy in my head. All I could think about was more. It made me feel like I wanted to jump out of my own skin.
How were you able to pay all of this?
I was doing a lot of crime. Going to court when I got caught, so of course my mom eventually found out.
So is that when you stopped using?
No. I got clean for a bit when I was 17. I was clean until after my 18th birthday. One day I was smoking weed with a friend at his place and he offered me an Oxy20. I was high, I was drunk, so of course I said yes. Immediately, I loved it.
Then I thought why don’t we just get heroin, because I know how to get it and you pay $20 and you’ll be high for a whole day. All heroin is cut with fentanyl. And we started injecting it, even though I was scared of needles. So a friend did it for me. I thought in my mind I was already a piece of shit, so why not inject it. And then I fell in love with it too. It felt like it was the answer to all my problems. All I’ve wanted in life is a feeling of stability and a feeling of having a purpose and that I’m going somewhere.
Did anyone else in your family suspect you were using?
I hid it very well. I was doing heroin every day and I would still go to movies with my mom. I would do everything a normal kid would do. And she had no idea.
What was treatment like?
I was in treatment the day my brother Brandon died of a fentanyl overdose. He died while he was in another drug treatment centre. That was on March 7th, two days before his birthday. The treatment centre I was at was $30,000 a month. And Brandon had been there before he died. But I was using in there. I wasn’t clean at all. People would bring me drugs: cocaine, steroids. I left treatment because they caught me with needles in my room and they told my mom. I just ran away and caught the ferry back to Vancouver and picked up drugs the first place I could. I went down to the east side and started selling crack on the corner, and I overdosed there at the safe injection site. I put $200 of fentanyl in my arm and I somehow got resuscitated.
From there, it was a treatment swing. I was in and out all over the place. But nothing really worked.
It sounds like you were dealing with a lot. Your own treatment and your brother’s death.
At the time, I was so busy with counselling. I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with the fact that he died. I went to his funeral. But I came right back. I was clean during the funeral, but I started using again right after it. I think it’s because I was kind of numb. I was thinking easily this could be my funeral, my urn, my picture. It killed me thinking about that. It kills me. It was a real possibility.
What was the turning point for you when you finally stopped using?
It was around the spring when I was at a treatment centre called Solid Ground. Usually when you use in treatment centres, and they catch you, you get kicked out. But at Solid Ground, I ran away three or four times to get high. They drug tested me and knew it. But they let me stay. And that’s what ultimately got me clean. Because they believed in me and didn’t let me go out and die.
Do you think the addictions treatment system failed your girlfriend and your brother?
Yes. There’s no checks and balances for most of these places. When I was a youth, it was hard to find a place for me to go to, and the places I was able to go to, there was drugs running through them all the time. Another major problem is that with so many of these places, it’s only addicts helping other addicts, without much structure. I’m going to change that.
Now that I’m clean, my mom and I are going to open treatment centres in BC starting in January. We’re thinking of naming them after my brother, or maybe something a little cheesy like Leap of Freedom. It’s going to be a youth house for guys to start, and then hopefully we will open up three more for women and adults. It’s going to be private of course, probably around $12 to $15,000 a month, but that’s still cheaper than what we were paying, around $30,000 a month.
We think gender-specific is a lot better, not co-ed. Because as soon as you go into a co-ed house, people substitute drugs for relationships, and it turns into a big hook-up house. And we will always have two beds available, for free, for youth who can’t afford it and get into a government-funded place. But they have to want it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cover: photo by Jackie Dives/VICE News