At 14 years old, Zion Williams-Farrell was discovering what it meant to be cool. As a new Grade 9 student at St. Mary’s High School in Kitchener, he followed an unwavering morning routine: shower, hair, clothes, cologne. Often, he’d wear red, his favourite colour, and he’d begun pulling a visor over his curly hair. He had a shiny stud in his left ear. A dedicated football player from age 10, Zion carried a stick of deodorant in every bag—something his mother, Jaimie, and older sister, Taejohnna, teased him about. To him, style wasn’t just about looking good, but also about smelling good. He lifted weights religiously, working hard to maintain his six-pack. In the classroom, focusing was a struggle for him, but for the good-natured, handsome kid with a chill vibe, popularity came easy.
Around his friends, Zion sometimes swore and acted tough, but never at home. There, he doted on his five-year-old brother, Noah, diligently completed his chores, cheered on his mother’s efforts to be healthier and do one more sit-up. Jaimie Farrell, a sales associate at Victoria’s Secret, raised her kids largely on her own. Zion’s father had moved to Calgary for work when Zion was 10, and the boy saw himself as the man of the house—often adopting his father’s protective mannerisms. He’d admonish Noah for standing too close to the street, or for straying too far from his side. Whenever Jaimie took her children out for dinner, she’d always have to tell Zion to relax and stop fussing over his little brother; she could look after Noah, and Zion could be a kid.
Jaimie knew that Zion had started experimenting with marijuana, but she also knew he wouldn’t dare smoke pot in their house. Any time she smelled it on him, she told him she didn’t approve—still, she reasoned with herself, it’s just weed. Then, one day in mid-May 2017, he didn’t come home after school. When that happened, Zion would usually call, but this time, he hadn’t. Jaimie had the day off from work and decided to make a big dinner for her children. She cracked a beer and began to cook.
As she suspected, Zion had met up with friends, and they all went to one boy’s house, smoked some weed and turned on a video game. At some point, Zion’s best friend, a 13-year-old kid he’d grown up with, said that he had bought a dozen Xanax from a guy in the neighbourhood. He pulled out the two-milligram pills, tiny, thin white bars, notched for easy breaking. Zion asked to buy two. Then, he sheepishly asked his friend how many to take. How many would he need to get high? Experimenting with drugs was still so new to him. His friend advised him to take half now, then the other later if he didn’t feel anything. Zion swallowed half a bar, then tucked the other away. He gave the second pill to a friend. Maybe he didn’t really need two.
When Zion wasn’t home by dinner, Jaimie tried direct messaging him on Instagram; his phone had run out of minutes. His dinner grew cold on the stove. Finally, just after 9 p.m., he walked in the door, a smile splayed across his face. His eyes were spiked red, bloodshot. He was obviously high. Zion realized, as Jaimie puts it, that “he was in shit.” But she was also happy to see him home safe, and she was in no mood for a fight. She decided to talk with him in the morning. She hugged him. “I’m mad at you,” she said, “but I love you.”
They were the last words she ever said to her son. Zion went upstairs and put on his joggers. His sister had recently had some friends over, and borrowed his TV and PlayStation 4 for her room. Zion went in and played some video games with her, and she soon fell asleep. At some point—nobody knows exactly when—Zion swallowed the other half of the pill and climbed into bed with his sister. The next morning, Jaimie woke up to Taejohnna screaming, “He won’t get up! He won’t get up!” She ran to her daughter’s room and started shaking her son. But as she touched his skin, she could tell he was already gone. He was cold, not moving. Words pounded in her head: What is happening? What is happening? When the paramedics arrived, they told her there was no heartbeat. In the moments after, Jaimie remembers being on the kitchen floor, her couch, the porch; she doesn’t remember going from one place to the next.
From the beginning, reporters asked Jaimie if Zion had perhaps taken fentanyl. One got in touch with the sister of Jaimie’s friend through Facebook, to ask whether Zion had taken fentanyl. Local media called her and kept bringing it up: was it fentanyl? The speculation made her furious; there was no way that drug could have reached her son. That drug was on the streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, not in safe, sleepy suburban Ontario neighbourhoods. It was something, she thought, that seasoned drug users turned to, not kids experimenting with substances for the first time. The wait for the toxicology report was agonizing. When the coroner finally called, three months after Zion’s death, Jaimie was in her backyard, barbecuing hot dogs. Fentanyl. The word felt like a knife in her heart. It was the first time she realized the truth: it’s everywhere.
Every generation has its drug, and every new drug—from pot to LSD to methamphetamine—spurs a certain amount of media-fuelled alarm, some of it warranted, some of it less so. But this generation is more vulnerable than its predecessors. Many teens tend to view prescription pills (like Xanax, which is a tranquilizer, or Percocet and codeine, both painkillers) as mundane and unthreatening. Patricia Scott-Jeoffroy has spent more than 30 years working among teens with substance abuse problems and is now an education consultant with Parent Action on Drugs, an organization that works with Ontario schools to educate teens. These days, she says, kids are talking openly and comfortably about drugs, but a lot of the information they’re sharing is wrong. What’s changed from past years, she believes, isn’t necessarily that more young people are doing drugs or experimenting recklessly in a way they never have before, but that they themselves attach far less stigma or fear to certain types of drug use. Even if they don’t use drugs, many kids, says Scott-Jeoffroy, are comfortable in their presence at house parties. They believe “everyone is doing it.” Pills often no longer raise alarm bells but rather curiosity—at many parties they’re just part of the backdrop, as common as a dime bag of pot or a bottle of cheap vodka. The scary part is that those pills are increasingly likely to be tainted with drugs of unknown origin, quantity and potency.
The age-old method for teens to acquire pills is to steal forgotten prescription bottles from parents’ medicine cabinets or bedside tables. When that fails, kids turn to dealers. As one teen I spoke to put it, “drugs are everywhere”—purchased through direct messaging on Instagram and Snapchat or passed in hallways. Buying drugs can be as easy as searching #xanax or #codeine on Instagram, and reaching out with the contact information supplied in the caption or user bio; the connection could be a total stranger or a friend of a friend with extra supply.
The instant, easy access has become especially dangerous as dealers have started to lace everything from ecstasy to cocaine with fentanyl, partly because it’s cheap to acquire or produce, and partly because it provides a bumped-up high, creating a sort of brand advantage for the dealer in a competitive black market. Dealers, who are often manufacturers too, can add fentanyl to any powder drug by purchasing its compound chemicals from the Internet and cutting it in. They usually have only a loose understanding of the complex chemistry of their drugs, and make them in basements or rented houses, using bad lighting and even shoddier equipment. They’re also often doing it quickly and carelessly, all of which can mean wildly different doses in the same batch, with one pill (or baggie of cocaine) containing a deadly dose of fentanyl and the other hardly any at all. Because the pills often mimic the appearance of legitimate pharmaceuticals, like, say, Xanax, the end users assume they’re taking a precise, and safe, dose. Quality control among dealers and manufacturers is virtually non-existent, and, with fentanyl, the line between a powerful high and an overdose is gossamer-thin.
Most recreational users say that they would never seek out fentanyl, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. In a 2015 survey of regular drug users by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, 29 per cent of respondents tested positive for fentanyl, yet three-quarters of that group did not report using the drug. In Canada, research by the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that 17 people are hospitalized daily from opioid poisoning. In Toronto since August 2017, paramedics have attended to an average of 56 non-fatal and three fatal suspected opioid overdoses per week. In 2017, apparent opioid-related deaths hit nearly 4,000 nationwide.
Fentanyl is a significant driver of these increases, and young people are experiencing the greatest rise in opioid-related hospitalizations, with the rate for kids aged 15 to 24 more than doubling from 2007–08 to 2016–17. In response to that trend, last year CAMH began tracking fentanyl use for the first time in its biennial Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. Researchers wanted to investigate whether fentanyl had made its way into schools. Extrapolating their data sample across the province, they concluded that as many as 5,800 high school students had used fentanyl at least once in the past year. “That was surprising,” says Hayley Hamilton, one of the co-authors of the report. “They’re high school students.”
Teens are not necessarily choosing fentanyl as their generation’s drug; it is instead choosing them. In the most recent CAMH survey, 3.1 per cent, or roughly 20,300 students in grades 9 to 12, reported using cocaine. Slightly more had tried ecstasy. Yet more than 10 percent (a total of 97,100 students between grades 7 and 12) said they’d taken prescription painkillers to get high, making that category of drugs one of the most commonly consumed substances after alcohol and pot. Any of these drugs could be laced with fentanyl.
In February 2018, the Toronto District School Board decided to equip all secondary schools with naloxone, a medication that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdose, essentially blocking the drug’s path to the brain. In every school, two staff members with first aid training are taught how to administer the kits. I spoke with one Toronto woman who has been a health and physical education teacher for 19 years and leads her school’s drug education strategy (since she’s still teaching, she didn’t want me to use her name). She said she doesn’t expect drug abstinence; she assumes some of her students will inevitably experiment. She sees her role as helping them to ask: how can we do this as safely as possible? And what are the tools and strategies we can use? “With fentanyl,” she added, “there are no proven strategies.” In other words, if you don’t know you’re taking it, how can you protect yourself against it?
She first introduced lessons on fentanyl into her health unit this past school year, rearranging the course outline to include it in the first semester for grades 9 to 12. Over the summer, she’d read too many headlines from across Canada that involved opioids and overdosing, and the GTA was no exception. In late July 2017, police issued a public safety alert following four fatalities and 20 overdoses in the city, all suspected to be related to fentanyl—likely laced into other drugs. A few days later, two 18-year-old girls were found dead inside an Etobicoke condominium. The cause of death was never made public, but the tragedy prompted Mayor Tory to hold meetings with health officials to discuss the spike in fentanyl overdoses. Then three more people overdosed and died in Durham region, with police also pointing to fentanyl. It seemed like every week there was a new story, and the teacher I spoke to felt certain it was only a matter of time before the crisis trickled down to high school. Recently, she learned some of her students are starting to carry naloxone kits when they go out to party. She hopes that one day it might be part of the regular leave-the-house checklist: keys, wallet, makeup, phone, naloxone.
When Wilma Thompson’s 19-year-old daughter, Jaena, began high school, she had no problem fitting in. She joined the cheerleading team and started playing field hockey. At times, she was shocked by how her classmates behaved, describing an atmosphere that, to Wilma, felt more like college than high school. Still, Jaena lived by a motto: be true to yourself, which, in the Thompson household, meant not caving to peer pressure. But what happens if you lose sight of who you are? In the summer after she graduated, Jaena began to drink and party—enough for her mom to worry. Wilma knew her daughter was struggling. Her husband, Jaena’s father, had recently revealed he’d been having an affair and had emotionally pulled away from his children, and Jaena’s long-time boyfriend had moved away. Jaena went to Fleming College in Peterborough to study to become an environmental technician. On the May long weekend of 2016, she visited home. Jaena’s older brother, Iain, whom she idolized, suspected his sister was on something—she seemed perpetually blissed-out and vacant. Jaena denied it. Around the same time, one of Wilma’s close friends lost a cousin to fentanyl. When Wilma told her daughter about it, Jaena issued the same denial: “Oh, Mummy, I would never touch that.” But she’d started casually dating a fellow student, and he was using fentanyl. On June 4, 2016, when Jaena’s boyfriend offered her a pill, she took it and overdosed. Wilma doesn’t know whether her daughter had tried fentanyl before, but, if she did, she likely wasn’t using it for very long. She’s not even sure her daughter knew what she was consuming. The boyfriend performed CPR and called 911. Paramedics revived her and rushed her to a nearby hospital.
Jaena survived long enough to be discharged, but she declined a referral for drug and alcohol counselling. She called her best friend and confessed that the experience had shaken her. “I will never do that again. It was the scariest thing,” she said. “Oh my god, I’m too young to die. Don’t ever touch that stuff. That stuff will kill you.” Jaena then went to sleep and never woke up. Nobody knows if she ingested another pill or whether the fentanyl had continued its way up her brain stem.
In the first days after her daughter’s death, Wilma often wondered what she could have done differently: could she have pushed her daughter to get help earlier? There were signs Jaena was spending more money than they’d budgeted together—should she have stopped transferring her extra cash? And yet, she knows that if her daughter was intentionally using fentanyl, there was likely nothing she could have done to save her. Wilma knows many families with kids who’ve done opioids, but none with survivors.
In that sense, Max Valvasori knows he’s lucky. He tried painkillers for the first time in Grade 9. At the time, he lived with his father and stepmother in Ajax. The pills were his dad’s, and while Valvasori doesn’t remember what they were called or why his dad was taking them, he does remember that they had a lot of codeine in them. Soon, Valvasori was pilfering them, regularly zoning out in class. Eventually, he started smoking weed and skipping school. His parents knew he was misbehaving, he says, but they didn’t link it to drugs. Valvasori transferred to a special school for students with poor attendance. In Grade 10, a friend showed him a dime bag of pills in class. He remembers the moment as casual: Yo, you want a Xanax? He held out his hand.
“I fell in love,” says Valvasori, who’s now 19. “The days would just—you’d just forget them. You’d wake up in the morning and not even know how you got home.” The pills were inexpensive, at $5 each, and easy to get. He would have been embarrassed talking with his friends about doing harder drugs like crack, but nobody blinked at popping a pill, whether it was Xanax, Percocet or a party drug like MDMA. It felt like everyone was doing it, so he didn’t bother hiding it. It wasn’t long before he was taking Xanax every day before school. That year, he also started doing cocaine, purchasing it from a dealer who lived on his street. Xanax helped him get through class, and coke got him through his after-school shifts at KFC. Eventually, he racked up $1,500 in debt to a local dealer, and he began to hang out with a new crowd, people he says seemed dangerous, even to him. His dealer told him to hold onto his shotgun for a while, and Valvasori, not wanting to look weak, obliged. There comes a point, he says with a shrug, when violence and drugs simply go together.
Valvasori had read articles about how deadly fentanyl could be and didn’t go looking for it. Instead, it was often mixed in with whatever pill he happened to take. He knew how long a prescription Xanax high lasted, and he’d done enough coke to know a “good” high lasted only so long. “When you’re high for five or six hours,” he says, “you know that there is some other shit in there.” Suddenly, friends were overdosing, some of them dying—or, as he says, “just dropping.” Valvasori says that more than once, he came close to overdosing. Fear, however, didn’t stop him. Part of the problem, he says, is that many teens trust their dealers as if they were pharmacists doling out precise amounts of risky substances. He and his peers would take it on faith that what their dealer had sold them was exactly what they were taking.
By Grade 12, Valvasori had tried crack cocaine and crystal meth, and increasingly felt like it wasn’t a big deal to experiment with other drugs. He often thought about stopping, but he couldn’t. Being sober made him feel sick, like being held underwater. A pill or a line of coke was like a gulp of air. Besides, at first, it all felt like fun, not dependency. When he was 17, his father, who by this time had discovered his drug use, searched his room. He found six grams of coke, half a pound of weed—and the dealer’s shotgun. For his dad, the gun was too much. “What were you going to do with it?” he demanded. Tears in his eyes, he told his son he could no longer live in his home, and Valvasori moved to Newmarket to live with his mother. It was his wake-up call. Cut off from his supply and broke, he decided to try, again, to stop.
Valvasori didn’t go to rehab or counselling, but he did find a mentor: a Durham region man named Chris Cull, who, in his early 20s, became addicted to Percocet, OxyContin and methadone, and is now clean. Cull’s straight talk on what opioids cost him—essentially, everything—helped Valvasori change his ways. When I spoke with him in July, it had been more than a year since he’d last used.
In the months following her son’s death, Jaimie Farrell lost 85 pounds. She no longer drinks, in part because she associates it with Zion’s death. She wishes she hadn’t had a beer that night; maybe she would have noticed something. For a while, she contemplated moving and never returning, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the place where Zion grew up. She tells people now that even if she won the lottery, she’d never leave the tiny house, with its crumbling popcorn plaster ceiling and small backyard. Above her couch hangs a piece of reclaimed wood, with the words, “This house is protected by Zion” burned into it. There are photos of him hanging from every wall, propped against every surface, small portraits and giant poster-size collages, all silently communicating that her eldest son won’t be forgotten. In the corner of the living room, a glass display case houses two of Zion’s football jerseys bearing the number seven, his helmet, his bank card, his phone, his favourite red high-tops and the earring he was wearing when he died. Jaimie still buys her son birthday and Christmas presents, then places them in the display case. He is always with her. She wears a small necklace with his hair in a locket. His name is tattooed on her clavicle. When she went out for dinner on her last birthday, she brought along a framed picture of Zion and set it on the table.
For a long time, Jaimie didn’t share her story, because she didn’t want her son associated with fentanyl. She feared it would tarnish his memory. Today, she thinks of it differently. Her son didn’t mean to take fentanyl. She has come to believe that Zion would want others to know what happened to him—that it might help them. And so Jaimie has started to speak out, little by little. She’s still shaken by the tiny amount—smaller than a Tylenol you might take for a headache. She wants other people to know that: her entire family feels lost and broken because her son swallowed a tiny pill. “It doesn’t just end with this drug,” she says. “This drug kills families and dreams and possibilities.”
She’s not alone in her grief. In November 2017, Moms Stop the Harm, a national network of families whose loved ones have died from substance use, launched an awareness campaign. The organization urged families and friends of those affected by the opioidaf crisis to appeal directly to Prime Minister Trudeau by sending him photos of their loved ones and explaining how they died. They asked him to “Do Something”—anything, really. An ideal outcome, for them, would be the announcement of a national action plan. Nearly 500 people wrote in, largely parents detailing stories of their children, many of them in their teens and 20s, who had either died from overdose or were on the cusp, still caught in their substance use. Writers affixed photos of better times to the letters and purple hearts to represent struggle. These grieving moms are not idealistic; having Trudeau acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis would have been a start. Months later, the letters remain unrecognized by Trudeau. In a strange way, says one Mississauga mother, Donna May, what makes her most hopeful is that the crisis will keep getting worse. May founded MumsDU after her daughter died in 2012 and has spoken at the United Nations General Assembly on the world drug problem. She believes that one day soon, opioid addiction will affect so many people that the government will have no choice but to act.
For her part, Jaimie has started to make T-shirts and sweatshirts with a cartoon picture of Zion’s face on the front. She unrolls one from a basket in the living room. In the cartoon, Zion wears a red shirt—his favourite colour—and has his fingers pulled into the corners of his mouth, stretching his smile wide. He’s wearing his beloved visor, his hair puffed up around it. Beneath the cartoon are the letters LFZ: Love for Zion. Jaimie has since held awareness rallies and events, where she tells her son’s story and reminds the crowd what she’s learned: that teens don’t have to have lived a lifestyle of drugs to overdose on fentanyl. She’s asked people to send her Love for Zion selfies from all over the world, so that, in a way, her son will get to see all the places he never could. On the wall behind her kitchen table, there is a world map with pins stuck in it to mark all the places people have thought of her son. It’s full.
This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.