Niagara’s silent killer

Niagara’s silent killer

Jon Johnston’s cheap jerseys life wasn’t supposed to end. Not that soon. Not like that.

He was supposed to be a known and respected chef among known and respected chefs. His creations were meant to delight diners and make other culinary artists jealous.

Johnston worked three jobs to put himself through chef’s training at George Brown College. A year ago he was working at an upscale Toronto restaurant owned by Claudio Aprile, a judge on Canada’s Master Chef television show. The future he worked so hard for was within reach.

But it would forever stay out of his grasp.

“He was very talented, very passionate about food,” says Aprile. “I think he could have gone as far as he wanted to go in this business. Which is tragic really, because he made that one bad decision.”

Johnston’s road came to an end at age 25 on a patch of sidewalk on the corner of Yonge and King streets in Toronto with a lethal dose of fentanyl in his veins, and only his health card, a list of dishes he recently cooked and a needle in his pocket.

He was originally listed by police as a John Doe, and his death went unreported until his father filed a missing person report.

“People need to know,” says Jenn Johnston, Jon’s mother. “They need to know how dangerous this drug is. This has been a horror story for me and my family.”

By the time her son died, Jenn Johnston knew he was using heroin.

It was a recent revelation. He’d kept his addiction secret from his family, but it had finally caught up with him.

After Johnston disappeared for two days, losing a good job as a result, his girlfriend called his mother.

Johnston’s mother says she pleaded with him to get help. She warned her son about fentanyl.

“I told him, ‘Please, please don’t take that stuff. Don’t inject that stuff,'” she said. “He said I didn’t need to worry. He told me he wouldn’t shoot fentanyl.”

After he died last April, Johnston’s mother was told the drugs in his system were 90 per cent fentanyl. The rest was heroin.

Johnston is one of hundreds of people in Ontario who died from an opioid overdose in recent years. Opioids from Percocet to heroin have always carried the risk of addiction and death. Many users, like Johnston, do not fit the stereotypical image of a shiftless drug addict. People from the streets to posh boardrooms use the drugs.

For years, public health officials, addiction specialists, drug companies and police struggled to combat the rise in opioid addiction, particularly through the widespread use of oxycodone.

The arrival of the fentanyl threw gasoline on that fire.

Cheap to make and easily accessible on the streets, fentanyl is more powerful, more addictive and more lethal than nearly any known opioid.

But it’s ubiquitousness is more of a problem than pharmacological effects.

“It’s everywhere,” says Rhonda Thompson, co ordinator of the Streetworks harm reduction program at Positive Living Niagara which provides clean needles and resources to Niagara drug users. “Fentanyl is being cut into just about everything.”

Drug dealers have mixed their product with other substances for decades to extend their supply and make more money. But Thompson says fentanyl is different. It can be found in everything from cocaine to methamphetamine.

It is not just being cut into other opioids like heroin but is sold by dealers as heroin.

“It’s used so widely because it is so cheap,” says Niagara Regional Police morality unit detective Todd Waselovich. “It’s cheap and easy to get. So you end up finding it in just about anything, usually without the user knowing exactly what it is they have.”

Users often don’t know they have fentanyl until it is in their bodies. By then, it could be too late.

“The people we deal with are genuinely afraid,” Thompson says. “They don’t know what they are getting, even from dealers they know. Someone might tell them it is heroin when it is mixed with fentanyl or just is fentanyl.”

Those who use street level opioids know the risks, she says. They know, given the potency of fentanyl, their next injection could be fatal.

They take the drug all the same. “That is the nature of addiction,” Thompson says. “They take it even though they know it could kill them.”

The demand for naloxone kits an antidote that can stop an overdose in its tracks that Streetworks makes available has spiked dramatically in recent months by users attempting to protect themselves.

Glenn Walker of Streetworks said over the last year the number of kits the organization handed out went from a handful a month to 15, and is now over 30.