The family of the Woodstock teen who’s become the local face of the deadly opioid epidemic is pushing for harsher penalties for dealers.
The Mackay family launched an online petition late last week urging government leaders to pass legislation that would sharply increase prison sentences for opioid dealers, especially those who knowingly lace other drugs with fentanyl or carfentanil. The push is part of the family’s effort to remember Connor Mackay, 17, who died on April 1 during a rash of more than two-dozen opioid overdoses in Southwestern Ontario that left nine dead in less than a week.
“It’s something we wanted to do in his name. He’s not going to be forgotten,” said Crystal Mackay, Connor’s aunt. “We’ll make some kind of good out of this. It may not change everything, but at least it’s out there to make people more aware.”
The petition, which the family plans to present to area MPs and MPPs, calls for a “maximum punishment” equivalent to the penalty for first-degree murder. The petition focuses specifically on dealers who sell to minors or cut other drugs with the potentially deadly opioids.
“Intentionally laced into other drugs without users’ knowledge is premeditated, with slim to no chance of survival,” the petition states.
As part of the family’s campaign, the Mackays are hosting a memorial event in July – the exact date still hasn’t been decided – to raise awareness about the petition while honouring Connor’s life. The family plans to give out blue-painted rocks and plants in donated teacups as a tribute to the Woodstock teen.
“We’re not going to let him die in vain,” Crystal said. “We can’t go out and do what we want to do to (the person) who gave it to him, but (we can go) after them legally.”
Since the spring, police and public health units in Southwestern Ontario have issued several urgent warnings after a rash of opioid overdoses. In one week in the early spring, Southwestern Ontario police officers responded to about 30 reported overdoses – nine of them fatal – as the regional opioid crisis came to a troubling head.
A drug that’s roughly 100 times more potent than heroin, fentanyl can be lethal in doses equivalent to a few grains of salt. Carfentanil – an opioid originally used as an elephant tranquilizer – is even deadlier, being approximately 100 times more toxic than fentanyl.
That danger is reflected in the OPP statistics released last week, showing a 35 per cent jump in overdose deaths in their jurisdictions the first quarter of 2019 when compared to the same time last year.
Responding to the crisis, courts in the area have shown a recent willingness to dole out stiffer penalties to those found guilty in opioid-related deaths. In a landmark case, William Knapp was given a two-and-a-half year sentence in a Woodstock court after pleading guilty to criminal negligence causing death and drug trafficking in the overdose death of Carolyn de Wit.
More recently, a man and woman from Simcoe were charged with manslaughter in April in connection with the overdose death of a young Port Dover woman. A Stratford man was charged with manslaughter in May for allegedly providing the fentanyl that led to a 48-year-old Stratford man’s overdose death.
Woodstock police are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Connor’s death but couldn’t be reached for an update.
Both Crystal and Al Mackay, Connor’s grandfather, said the Woodstock teen wouldn’t have purposely used carfentanil.
“I want him to be remembered for the good he was. He wasn’t a junkie. He was around people who should’ve taken care of him and they didn’t,” Crystal said. “We can’t bring him back, so we need to make the best of it.”
A one-time College Avenue secondary school student, Connor was found March 30 at about 8 a.m. suffering from an apparent overdose. Crystal said she got the call that morning from Connor’s mother, Sherry. Connor had been rushed to Woodstock Hospital before being transferred to the pediatrics ward at Victoria Hospital in London. With more than 40 family members gathering to support each other in the wake of Connor’s overdose, the London doctors needed to use a banquet room to provide updates on the teen’s condition.
“It was complete chaos,” Al said. “We’ve digested it more and will do the best we can. We’ve been to hell and back.”
Connor was remembered as a self-starter and a hard worker, who was good with his hands. He began working at 15 – employed by Tim Hortons for more than two years – before he began fixing roofs in Toronto. Connor had recently just started a new welding job.
Connor’s sister, Julia Mackay, said his first big purchase was a truck, which he fixed up. Connor enjoyed buying broken dirt bikes, trucks and snowmobiles and restoring them to working condition.
“He saw a problem, he’d put his mind to it and fix it. He loved challenges,” said Penny Mackay, Crystal’s wife.
Known for his drawing skills and love of fishing and fireworks at the family cottage in Tobermory, Connor always seems to have an ear-to-ear grin that matched his boisterous laugh.
“His face would go beet red and, when he laughed, it was just a belly laugh,” Crystal said. “He loved joking around. Anything to make someone happy, he’d do it. He could brighten up a whole room. He was always there for his family and friends.”
As the ongoing opioid epidemic continues to grow in Southwestern Ontario – and across Canada – the Mackay family is dedicated to seeing real change.
“Everyone will remember him now. They’re not going to forget him,” Crystal said. “That’s our goal and hopefully some good comes out of it.”
To view the petition, visit http://bit.ly/ConnorMackay.
WHAT ARE OPIOIDS?
- Opioids are highly addictive painkillers, also called narcotics, made from opium poppies or synthesized in a lab.
- There are many different kinds of prescription and illicit opioids with varying strengths, including morphine, heroin, hydromorphone, oxycodone and fentanyl.
- Prescription opioids such as OxyContin can be abused by patients or diverted to the streets, where they may be smoked, crushed and snorted or injected by drug users.
- Opioids have been implicated in more than 2,000 deaths nationwide in the first half of 2018 alone.
- In the London area, there were 42 opioid-related deaths between January and October 2018.
WHAT IS FENTANYL?
Fentanyl is a hyper-potent, lab-made opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine. As little as two milligrams of the drug, the equivalent of about four grains of salt, can kill a first-time user. It easily can be mixed into other drugs and is difficult to detect.
HOW DOES FENTANYL GET ON OUR STREETS?
- Prescription gel fentanyl patches used to manage severe chronic pain can be sold on the streets, where the drug is smoked, ingested or dried into a powder.
- Illegal powdered fentanyl, made in overseas labs and smuggled into Canada, can be cut into other drugs or pressed into tablets made to look like prescription pills.
- Organized crime plays a role in selling and distributing illicit fentanyl, Middlesex London health unit chief medical officer of health Chris Mackie says.
WHAT MAKES FENTANYL ATTRACTIVE TO DRUG USERS?
Sometimes drug users end up with fentanyl accidentally when it’s cut into another drug they want. Other times they seek it out, said Ken Lee, lead physician at Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex’s addiction medicine clinic. It’s powerful and cheaper, he said. “The people I see know that they’re using fentanyl,” Lee said. His patients report pharmaceutical-grade hydromorphone goes for $60 a point, one-tenth of a gram, on the street. “A point of fentanyl is much stronger and will last a lot longer. It’s cheaper than buying the known pharmaceutical-grade pills,” Lee said.
WHAT MAKES FENTANYL USEFUL TO DRUG DEALERS?
Non-users might wonder, why mix in a drug that could kill your customers? For dealers, the benefit is that slipping fentanyl into another kind of illegal drug can increase the high buyers get from using it, and mixing in fentanyl also lets dealers stretch out their supply of the more expensive drugs – say, heroin – that they’re selling.
WHAT IS CARFENTANIL?
Carfentanil is a chemical relative to fentanyl. The drug is intended as an elephant tranquilizer and is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, 4,000 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than fentanyl.