If Saskatchewan is in a downward drug addiction spiral, then Esther Green has witnessed firsthand the worst of the pain it spits out — two sons hooked on fentanyl, one dead from an overdose, another sitting on remand in jail for drug charges.
“A rollercoaster from hell,” is what the Swift Current mom says she’s been riding since 2005, when it all started.
That’s the year Green pinpoints as the beginning of her late son’s fentanyl addiction. Jeff Snyder would have been 36 this year, says his mom.
"He passed away at 28.”
Jeff's death didn't halt Green's hellish ride. Her younger son, Kevin Snyder, now 33, remains caught in a cycle of recovery and relapse from his addiction.
Their story is one of the many tragedies in Saskatchewan’s escalating drug overdose problem, showing its deadly reach outside the big cities, Saskatoon and Regina, into smaller communities like Swift Current, Weyburn and Yorkton, among others.
Their story also shows fentanyl and other illicit opioids have had a foothold in the province for at least a decade.
Data from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service indicate in 2010 there were at least 78 drug overdose deaths (including but not exclusively opioid-related). In 2015, a year after Jeff’s overdose, the number crossed the century mark, topping out at 121 overdose deaths. It has stayed above 100 every year since. When all the reports are finalized from last year, the provincial service expects the toll will reach 377 for 2020.
For Green, her son was more than a statistic; in 2005 he was a kid with a broken back and neck, barely 20 years old.
“He had a car accident … and was prescribed painkillers, and that contributed to his addiction,” Green says, acknowledging there were other factors, like his marijuana use as a teenager.
Doctors prescribed him hydromorphone, an opioid often marketed as Dilaudid, to treat moderate to severe pain. Green says the prescription amount was “way more than” four pills at one milligram.
“When he got cut off, there was no substitute for that and I know he went to street drugs,” among them fentanyl, she says.
By May 2013, her eldest son was jobless and opting for medically-assisted treatment, methadone, to deal with the withdrawal symptoms while hoping to stay clean.
“Not until (then) did he really admit he was struggling with his addiction and (he) never really opened up,” his mom says. “He hid a lot of things from me.”
He told her the truth about an earlier hospital visit when he was working in the oil sector in northern Alberta.
He initially lied, saying he slipped on ice while outside in -35 C weather, wearing only a hoodie, and “he finally got help and the ambulance took him to the hospital.”
In fact, her son was in a painful fentanyl withdrawal; after a hot shower did nothing to ease his muscle pains, “(he) went out to try to find some drugs. He couldn’t find them, so he laid on the street hoping somebody would call an ambulance and he would get something (drugs) in the hospital.”
Green says it’s one of many examples showing how far desperation will drive someone. "If nobody had found him, he could have frozen to death.”
A few months later, she and her husband found him dead in his Swift Current apartment.
It was a Saturday morning in January 2014; Green’s last words face-to-face with her son were on Wednesday of that week, after dropping him off at work.
By Saturday morning, Jeff’s girlfriend in Lethbridge called her, saying she couldn’t reach him. “My heart went right away … call it mother’s intuition; ‘something is wrong,’ ” Green recalls thinking.
She unlocked Jeff’s basement suite door to find the security chain was still latched.
“I opened the door and it just hit me … I knew he was gone,” she says. Despite calling out to her son for an answer, barred by the barely-opened door, “My mind knew, if you have a smell like that, there's no way he could answer anymore.”
A funeral home director believed Jeff had died two or three days prior.
Years later Green learned the coroners service didn’t do an autopsy on her son, meaning he has never been included in provincial statistics for overdose deaths. But she learned from local police he died with a needle stuck between his big toe and his index toe.
“It hurts, but it doesn't change anything … I don't know if I’m just numb from so many years of dealing with this up-and-down, up-and-down, or I have acceptance now that I cannot change what happened.
“My grief is still hard, because he's gone and he's always going to be gone,” she says.
Compounding her struggle was her younger son Kevin’s relapse to using fentanyl shortly after he learned of his brother’s death. He was living in Ontario at the time.
Kevin returned to Saskatchewan in February 2014, his mom says, and worked his way through detox and addiction treatment programs at Moose Jaw’s Wakamow Valley and Saskatoon’s Calder Centre.
Green says her younger son was on the path to recovery in 2019, earning an insurance sales certificate and finding stable work in the industry.
But in 2020, “COVID hit, they could not do face-to-face (sales) and he hit a rock bottom.”
Swift Current RCMP arrested and charged Kevin with drug crimes in November.
Green believes the beginnings of his fentanyl use can also be traced back to that 2005 time period. Shortly after his brother injured his back and neck, Kevin had ACL surgery on his knee after injuring it in a soccer game. A doctor also prescribed him hydromorphone, she says.
It's painful watching her son struggle down the same dark path with drug abuse as his brother. But she’s hopeful over Kevin’s open and frank conversations with her about it, compared with Jeff’s secrecy.
She recalls Kevin’s regular check-ins with her when he felt ready to leave a detox centre and try clean living, confident he built up a good support network.
Those also came with harder conversations: A roommate in detox hung herself and he tried to save her, with no success; he started using again; he was living out of his car in a parking lot.
Now that he’s on remand, Green accepts — with concern — it’s a much-needed detox for him, albeit a forced one in jail. There too, she’s hopeful as she speaks with Kevin every day, whether for a simple check-in or to hear how he’s working through his demons, recognizing it will be a long process.
The Swift Current mom also flags the meagre support drug users and addicts get in Saskatchewan, citing no drug treatment centre in Swift Current.
“We need to care for somebody who’s struggling and also still care for them once they’ve passed away,” Green says. “They don’t have to be a non-person, they don’t have to be wiped under the rug."
First in a three-part series. In Part 2 on Friday, Weyburn police trace the history of the fentanyl market and the problems it brought to their community. In Part 3 on Saturday, a fentanyl user shows what resiliency looks like for him, as he tries to quit the drug and stay clean.