Poppy: A novel about the opioid crisis

Poppy hopped off the bus at Burrard and Davie and walked the half-block back to St. Paul’s, where a gathering of some 30 black-clad youth stood outside the main entrance. He dodged a few on the sidewalk on the wide walkway from sidewalk to door and noticed a “Speedball Dreams” badge sewn on the sleeve of a studded jean jacket. He guessed they had seen Maxine’s photo of Danny and had arrived to visit.

“Hey, gang. Are you here to see Danny?”

“Yeah,” said a few while the others stared at him through half-squinted eyes. Their forlorn looks were consistent with those of adolescent runaways he had encountered two decades earlier as a Downtown Eastside foot patroller. Most, he sensed, had survived various forms of abuse or neglect at home.

“Thanks for coming. I’m his dad. Did they tell you how he is?”

“They said we weren’t family so we couldn’t visit and they won’t tell us anything,” said one of the youth.

“Patient confidentiality,” added a lean, green-eyed teen beside him.

“They’re doing their jobs. But I’ve visited with him and can tell you he’s in stable condition and will be brought out of his coma in about a week.”

A lanky woman with long, neon-red hair and high, sculpted cheekbones spoke up.

“Hey, weren’t you in the paper the other day?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Your other son got killed in the war?” asked the serious-looking, 20-something male with a faded, black muscle shirt and the pectorals and biceps to justify it.

“It’s been a rough week.”

The young man stepped forward from the group and threw his arms around a startled Poppy, who tightened up on instinct. The tall girl followed, as did a few others until he found himself at the centre of a massive huddle he could not escape if he tried.

He noticed those who could not get near enough to touch him place their open palms on the shoulders and backs of those nearer. Several silent seconds passed as he surrendered to their love. What started as a tingle near his tailbone climbed his spine and spread through his upper back and shoulders until his body relaxed and he opened his heart to those around him.

—Excerpt from Poppy by Jay Black

For 100 years, the bright red poppy has remained an enduring symbol of remembrance. Inspired by Canadian physician Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, the practice of wearing poppies began in 1918 as a reminder of those who lost their lives in battle during the First World War.

In more recent times, it is hard to overlook the dual symbolism the poppy has taken on in relation to conflicts in the Middle East and the Prohibition-style “war on drugs” adopted in North America.

The symbolic historical links of the poppy with death are not just connected to the blood spilled on battlefields, but also to the opium trade.

Since the conflict in Afghanistan began in 2001, 159 Canadian soldiers and 31,000 civilians have died – and some of these casualties have been as a direct result of anti-drug operations aimed at eradicating the poppy harvest. Poppies provide the raw opium that feeds more than 90 percent of the West’s demand for illicit heroin.

It has become increasingly difficult to disentangle the connection between harsh anti-drug policies and the global violence that has persisted as a result of the demand for opiates. Many argue that the prohibition of opiates for non-medical use has helped to fuel the illicit drug trade—and subsequent overdose crisis—which, in turn, has led to many lives being lost unnecessarily.

In Canada, more than 8,000 people have lost their lives in opioid-related deaths since 2016, with B.C. being one of the hardest-hit provinces. The prevalence of fentanyl and carfentanil in the street drug supply has led to the overdose death rate in the province climbing substantially in recent years, with a total of 972 deaths in B.C. so far this year.

Drug users, allies, activists and health professionals argue that the current prohibition policy is at the root of the problem.

Author Jay Black’s recent work, Poppy, draws parallels between the intersecting issues of war, prohibition and the opioid crisis in B.C.

His book, which is predominately set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, focuses on a family whose members are each uniquely impacted by the poppy: a son entrenched in his addiction to opiates; his brother, a soldier stationed near a poppy field in Afghanistan; and a father, whose life revolves around the two.

Black, who lived in both Ontario and Alberta before relocating to Vancouver in his teens, has a strong personal connection to the book’s subject matter. Years ago, he lost his only sibling to a drug overdose.

“Inspiration [to write Poppy] was born out of my frustration with the long-failed war on drugs and then learning, in 2008, of the steady rise in opium exports out of Afghanistan after the invasion in 2001,” explains Black. “I had lost my only sibling to a heroin overdose, I have a cousin who served two rotations in Afghanistan as a Canadian Forces medical technician, and I lived in the Downtown Eastside during serious upticks in overdose and gangland shooting deaths domestically and military casualties overseas.”

Black says that Poppy’s honest and compassionate portrayal of opiate use aims to reduce stigma and, ultimately, humanize addiction. Witnessing his brother’s long struggle with heroin firsthand inspired Black to use Poppy as a platform to critically reflect on drug prohibition.

“My younger brother got hooked when he was 16,” Black said. “I’m not a physician, but it makes intuitive sense that if someone acquires a heroin addiction before physical maturity is attained, it becomes a metabolic necessity.”

Black says that abstinence programs don’t work for everyone and maintenance with methadone has damaging side effects.

“My brother might have had a fighting chance had prescription treatment been available,” Black said.

His book also strives to address larger structural and systemic issues—including corruption, apathy and violence—in relation to Canada’s war on drugs.

“While I want to convey a lot of things with Poppy, perhaps the most important is my view that Canadians are under attack from white-collar criminals and compromised elements in government,” Black explains.

He is quick to point out he means no disrespect to war veterans and peacekeepers who continue to serve their country and says that he honours their contributions each Remembrance Day.

Beyond reflecting on the relationship that exists between war, corruption, drug prohibition and addiction, Black also uses Poppy to highlight some of the issues faced by the Downtown Eastside community.

“Much of what ails our society is rooted in a generalized apathy toward facing tough problems squarely,” he said. “I get it. It’s not easy. Poppy is, in part, an attempt to encourage Vancouverites to carefully consider the grave costs of our denial. Nowhere in Canada are they more evident than in the Downtown Eastside.”

All of Poppy’s narrative and thematic strands work to illuminate the massive scope of the war on drugs. Not only are individuals at a local level affected by bad policy, but so too are communities and countries thousands of miles away. Black’s eloquent and thoughtful storytelling seeks to illustrate these global connections and illustrates the impact prohibition and corruption have on people in every corner of the world.

Through his writing, Black invites readers to reconsider the symbolism attached to the poppy. As the opioid death rate rises and the war on drugs continues, the poppy–a traditional token of remembrance–has taken on new meaning.

In 2019, Black intends to release a follow-up to Poppy entitled Speedball Dreams. Until then, you can find Poppy on Amazon.

Courtesy of Megaphone / INSP.ngo

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