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Gemma 19

 Empathetic, Huge Heart, Strong, Kind, Beautiful, Would give others the clothes off her back


As a young girl growing up on one of the Gulf Islands, Gemma was loving, kind, artistic and musical. She loved and was loved by her family and friends. 

Gemma moved with her family to Vancouver when she was 16. She started experimenting with drugs with other kids in her peer group. When her family became aware of Gemma’s drug use, they arranged for her to get help in a residential treatment program for youth. Gemma used drugs in the program and was kicked out. The director and employees of the program shamed Gemma and her family. Instead of helping her find another program that would have been more appropriate, they sent Gemma packing with no other resources. This was the first of many disappointments within the care system. The stigma and shame came directly from the people that her parents thought would help. 

Karma, Gemma’s mom, explained, “There were shockingly little resources for youth in 2017, and not much has improved since then. The only option we could find was a day treatment program that was, in reality, glorified babysitting. That is when we connected her to a doctor who prescribed Suboxone. At first Suboxone helped. Like many, Gemma found the rules that went along with the Suboxone prescription difficult. She felt ashamed of having to line up every day in the pharmacy to get her dose of Suboxone.  DWI (Daily Witnessed Ingestion) was required. Every day when she was given the Suboxone, she had to take the pill, and then open her mouth to show that she had swallowed it. This was done in front of other customers. For many, including Gemma, she found this embarrassing and humiliating.” 

Once she noticed the cravings for drugs lessened, Gemma decided that she would go off the Suboxone. Sadly, once she did this, the cravings came back. Gemma’s addiction escalated and the family tried to get her help, but every step of the way experienced roadblocks. 

There were still few options for addiction treatment for youth. When Gemma was 19, her family was able to send her to a very expensive licensed residential treatment program. This program mainly used non-evidence based approaches. Her mom explained that “Gemma was asked to use her will power and higher power to stop using. We all know now that this approach has a high failure rate. The only treatment that spoke to Gemma at that time was a trauma informed approach which Gemma liked and responded to.

they made her stop and continue with the NA(Narcotic Anonymous) and AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) treatment. Gemma left this program after 3 months under the guidance of the staff. We now know that Gemma was nowhere near ready to face the real world unless she had access to a safe supply.” 

The treatment centre referred Gemma to a "step down" (transitional) licensed residential treatment facility without any real risk assessment and discharge plan. The centre was not prepared for a young woman with an opioid use disorder. Gemma only lasted 10 days before she scored a poisonous dose of drugs she thought were clean opioids, took it to her room, locked the door and used. Gemma died alone in this room and was not found for 12 hours. As Gemma had not been using, this poisonous dose combined with her low tolerance for opioids, killed her. By the time Gemma was found, it was far too late to help her, even though she was in a treatment centre, a place where her family believed she would be safe. We now know that treatment centres need to be regulated and monitored. People with opioid use disorder need evidence based treatment. The carelessness Gemma and her family experienced at the hands of these treatment centres combined with the toxic drug supply, and shame and stigma led to Gemma’s death.


The stigma around using drugs completely impacted Gemma for the entire time she was using drugs. She hid her use from her family and her friends. She used alone so that others would not know. The anxiety over using drugs and not being able to stop led to some mental health issues such as depression. Gemma just could not stop using drugs even when she fully intended to do so. Heroin and fentanyl put her in a cycle of addiction. Even though she knew that using drugs was creating harm in her life, and she tried to stop, inevitably she found herself again looking for how to get the drugs she craved. 

If Gemma could have accessed a safe regulated supply, she would probably still be alive. Her mom, Karma, believes Gemma would still be here had there been a safe supply program of drugs available. The drugs that are purchased on the streets are deadly for so many. 

Addiction is a disorder that is characterized by periods of not using and then starting to use again. Despite the best intentions, people sometimes find they have impossibly strong urges to use the drug again. Very often it takes multiple runs at getting free from drugs. Before fentanyl, before one dose of a drug could be lethal, it was very common to make 5 to 7 attempts to be able to shake the grasp of addiction. However, since drugs currently purchased on the street might contain a lethal dose, many people never get the chance to try and try again. One relapse is all it takes if one gets a deadly dose. 

Gemma only had one relapse after completing her treatment. She could have survived it if she had access to a regulated supply 

The declaration of the public health emergency in 2016 was one year before Gemma's death. Now in 2022 the number of deaths due to the toxic drug supply is at around 6 people a day in BC. We need a safe drug supply now in order to save lives. Our government needs to take this health emergency seriously! We also need to educate the public around shame and stigma. We also need more evidence-based treatment options for youth. We need action now 

Gemma was an incredibly kind and beautiful person. Many people have told her mom that Gemma changed their life. Gemma was very spiritual, and people were drawn to her because of her lovely energy. We have all lost this beautiful soul. 

Gemmas pic for UBC research.jpeg
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