Kamilah Sword
© National Post
Greg Sword (left) and his daughter Kamilah Sword, 14. Kamilah died from an overdose after becoming addicted to hydromorphone, a drug commonly prescribed as part of safer supply programs.
Fourteen-year-old Kamilah Sword overdosed and died last August after becoming addicted to hydromorphone, a drug which her friends say they often acquired through drug users who were defrauding Vancouver's safer supply programs. Her father, who wants answers for his daughter's death, feels "brushed aside" by the government and worries about how the investigation of his daughter's death is being handled.

Last week, he shared his story and introduced me to Kamilah's closest friends, and their parents, who explained how hydromorphone abuse has ravaged their families and contributed to a new generation of opioid addicts in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Collectively, they painted a disturbing portrait of a community where the abuse of "dillies" (the slang term for Dilaudid, a brand of hydromorphone) is ubiquitous among teenagers, thanks, in part, they say to the wide-scale defraudment of "safer supply" programs.

As I reported in an investigative story, published earlier this month by the National Post, Canada's "safer supply" experiment, which was widely scaled up in 2020, has been a disaster.

The program was supposed to reduce overdoses and deaths by providing drug users with free hydromorphone, a pharmaceutical opioid as potent as heroin, as an alternative to potentially tainted street substances. In practice, these opioids are often being resold (diverted) on the black market to fund the purchase of harder street drugs, primarily fentanyl.

Numerous addiction experts I've interviewed this year have said that safer supply diversion is contributing to a new opioid epidemic that has been particularly harmful for youth. In response, safer supply advocates claim that there is no evidence of this phenomenon — an opinion which the B.C. Coroner's Service also holds.

Yet, the parents and teenagers in Port Coquitlam I spoke with see a very different reality — and when they hear activists, bureaucrats and politicians claim that everything is fine, they brim with outrage. "A cruel hoax," said one. The word "idiots" was also thrown around.

This story centres on Kamilah, a girl who friends and family described as fearless, kind and eager to please. She mostly lived with her father, Greg Sword, who works for a concrete forming company. Together, they enjoyed an unassuming working class life.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and devastated Kamilah's mental health. Isolated and depressed, she connected with a new, questionable crowd online. According to her close friends, these new people hooked her onto drugs, which soon controlled her. She overdosed multiple times and though her father spent two years "in and out of hospitals trying to get help," he said nothing worked.

Drugs ensnared her best friends, too — Emily, Madison, and Hannah (not their real names). They all started using and eventually moved onto harder substances. Then, around one or two years ago, a new drug suddenly roared into popularity: "dillies."

I was unable to interview Madison for this story, as she is currently in rehab, but Madison's mother, Nicole Miller, along with Emily and Hannah, provided insight into what happened.

According to 16 year-old Hannah, "everyone knows" about dillies at her school. "All our friends. All of us did them. A lot. Yeah, it's just a really common drug."

As Hannah would often hang out "in big groups of people" with an age range of roughly 11 to 17, she witnessed kids who were in middle school (between the ages of 11 and 13) abusing the drug, too. She could not recall hydromorphone being an issue when she was in middle school a few years ago.

Hannah casually tried hydromorphone when she was 15 years old and says she became hopelessly addicted within a month. She explained that her drug dealer downplayed hydromorphone's risks and, after getting her hooked, pressured her to try more illicit substances, such as heroin, which he told her was "just like dillies."

"If I knew what I would've gotten into when I first started doing them, then I never would've started, because it led to worse things," she said, noting that drug dealers in her community emphasize that hydromorphone tablets are "really good and clean and that there's nothing bad in them." She said this "makes you think that it's fine to do it."

Both Hannah and Emily said that hydromorphone is popular among youth partially because it is cheap — a single 8mg tablet can be purchased for $5-10 in Port Coquitlam and prices are even lower in downtown Vancouver, where, according to Hannah, it is possible to buy 40 tablets for $60.

They also said that drug dealers travel to East Hastings, a neighbourhood in Vancouver known for rampant drug dealing, to purchase dillies at rock-bottom prices and then resell them to teenagers in Port Coquitlam for a tidy profit.

Sometimes the girls would travel to downtown Vancouver to buy cheaper dillies. It was easy to find them, as, according to Hannah, "you could literally walk down East Hastings and just find a homeless person." Addicts there would routinely accost her, trying to sell her hydromorphone and asking if she knew anyone who wanted to buy it.

Miller says that her daughter Madison told her that they "could go up to a drug addict and ask for dillies and they'd have bottles of them, because they would go into pharmacies, get them filled up and sell them to the kids."

According to Emily, these addicts wanted to make money so that they could buy harder drugs, and that they would lie to the pharmacies and say they needed free hydromorphone to quit using.

Miller said that the addictive effects of hydromorphone are something she has "never seen before." After being hooked on hydromorphone, Madison became angry and aggressive and would "cry and scream and flail around because she needed the dillies."

"I have watched my daughter slowly die because of them."

In one incident, the police brought Madison home after she overdosed on a Skytrain station platform. When Miller insisted that her daughter be searched, they found a bottle of dillies in her purse. The police took the bottle away, but did nothing beyond that.

Eventually, the dillies weren't enough for Madison, who started using fentanyl. "She wouldn't stop! It was either rehab or death. That was the choice she had, because it was that bad. And it all started with the hydromorphone," said Miller.

The drug's impact on the community has been devastating. "I've never met so many teenagers who are drug addicts before. A huge majority of teens are using because it's so easily available," said Miller, adding that her daughter had to leave the community to get clean, as hydromorphone was an omnipresent temptation.

Both Hannah and Emily were aware of multiple hydromorphone overdoses within their social circles. "One guy I knew, he was taking dillies and he drank and he overdosed in a park and ambulances came and it was kind of scary," said Emily.

Hannah was also in a park with several friends when one girl, who had taken three or four hydromorphone tablets, overdosed. "She was throwing up everywhere and she couldn't breathe and it was getting bad — you could tell. Her throat was making noises and her lips were turning purple."

Last August, Kamilah overdosed and died. Grief-stricken and angry, her friends confessed the full details of their drug use to their parents and to Kamilah's father.

In a phone interview, Sword told me that, several days after his daughter's death, he received a call from the coroner's office and was verbally informed that she had had three drugs in her system — MDMA, cocaine and hydromorphone. He says it was the first time that he had ever heard of hydromorphone.

It is impossible to know the exact details of Kamilah's death because, in the nine months that have since passed, Sword has never received a copy of his daughter's autopsy report. The B.C. Coroner's Service told Sword that it cannot share this report until it concludes its investigation of Kamilah's death, which is ongoing. For this same reason, the National Post has not been able to see the report and independently verify Sword's claims about the drugs found in her system.

That said, five addiction experts I spoke with for this story said that, if it is indeed true that Kamilah had this cocktail of drugs in her system, then it is highly likely that the hydromorphone killed her. Fatal MDMA overdoses are incredibly rare, as are cocaine overdoses, to a lesser degree.

Sword said that he was told that the RCMP is also investigating Kamilah's case and that, while he was brought in for questioning once, he has received no follow up since. The delays and lack of communication have been frustrating for him — the system feels like "a joke."

In an email, the B.C. Coroner's Service said that reports regarding drug toxicity deaths typically take around one year to complete, which suggests that Sword's wait time is currently ordinary.

Excluding the RCMP's alleged meeting with Sword, neither the Coroner's Service nor its affiliates have reached out to Kamilah's friends and family throughout the investigation of her death — even though their testimony would be essential for determining the source of the hydromorphone found in her body.

I asked the Coroner's Service about what efforts, if any, had been made to investigate whether the hydromorphone found in Kamilah's system was connected to safer supply — after all, the drug is prescribed for pain relief and may have been diverted to the black market that way. "Coroners have broad powers to gather information they believe necessary to assist their investigation. Medical and police records are routinely gathered as part of a coroner's investigation," they replied.

This is a vague non-answer. Not only does it fail to identify any specific measures taken to investigate connections to safer supply, one can imagine many cases, including Kamilah's, where police and medical records would be unable to show whether hydromorphone found in a body was diverted from safer supply or not.

Once stripped of its packaging, it is very difficult to concretely prove that any given hydromorphone was diverted from safer supply. However, B.C.-based addiction physician Dr. Allan Brookstone says that such evidence is unnecessary.

According to Dr. Brookstone, the precautionary principle, which is widely used in health care to maximize safety in uncertain settings, reverses the burden of proof.

"There's an onus on those that are managing these programs and creating these narratives to ensure that that hydromorphone, or to prove that that hydromorphone, is not from safer supply," he told me. "We don't have to prove that it is from safer supply — they have to prove that it's not coming from safer supply and to show where it is coming from if not safer supply."

Last week, B.C.'s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said that critics spotlighting safer supply's negative community impacts were "reprehensible" and "not basing their criticism on evidence." She emphasized that, "We are not seeing safer supply increasing in the tests that we're seeing, we're not seeing people dying as a result of safer supply."

Some data suggests that the number of deaths caused by pharmaceutical-grade opioids, such as hydromorphone, have been stable in B.C. and have not significantly risen since safer supply was expanded in 2020.

Yet Kamilah Sword's experiences, as well as those of her friends and family, suggest that the data Lisa Lapointe is relying upon, and spotlighting to the public, may not be telling the full story.

Shortly after Lapointe denied that safer supply is harming Canadians, a concerned addiction physician sent me a recording of a speech she made at a conference last month. In that speech, Lapointe seemingly acknowledged that safer supply diversion may be killing youth, but suggested that these deaths would be a justified cost for the program.

"I had a conversation the other day with somebody in a position of influence in the government who — they are now looking, they are spending time and energy looking at this issue of diversion to youth. It's a very concerning thing, because the physicians are afraid that if they prescribe and it's diverted to an opioid naive user, they may become opioid dependent and they may die. And I understand that. But that may happen to some people, but the fact is that six people are dying every single day of every single week of every single month of the last two and a bit years. That's the fact," said Lapointe.

When asked about Lapointe's comments, the B.C. Coroner's Service acknowledged she said them. They also claimed that, while Lapointe "pointed out that the concern was raised with her in the context of youth," her statement was not specifically about youth and applied to people of all ages.