Advocacy groups say the solution to countering B.C.’s leading causing of unnatural death is simple: allow for a safe supply of drugs.
The number of fatal overdoses in the province has ballooned from annual numbers in the low hundreds during the late 1990s and early 2000s, to numbers in the thousands in recent years. B.C. called a public health emergency in 2016, but the number of deaths have only continued to climb. In 2021, a record number of 2,264 people died, with another 1,095 dead in the first six months of 2022 alone.
Much of this increase is attributed to the introduction of far more powerful synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, and an ever-increasing contamination of the drug supply. Because the drugs are illegal and unregulated, those who use them often don’t know how strong a dose they’re taking or what the dose could be laced with.
Prohibition produces a dangerous supply, advocates and experts say
Advocacy groups compare what’s happening now to the prohibition on alcohol – making the substance illegal didn’t stop people from consuming it, it simply pushed operations underground. This, in turn, stigmatized consumption and resulted in unregulated alcohol levels in drinks.
As with alcohol, making opioids illegal will not stop people from using them, SOLID support services coordinator Fred Cameron said during a press conference on International Overdose Awareness Day Wednesday (Aug. 31).
“All we need to do is get drugs tested,” he said. “Until we do that, people will continue to die.”
It’s a view that’s been backed by experts and the BC Coroners Service. In March, the service released a report concluding that prohibition is forcing people to access a poisoned drug supply. The panel of experts behind it called for a safer supply and more evidence-based care.
Early findings released in March on a series of safe supply pilot programs running in B.C., Ontario and New Brunswick, show a decreased risk of overdose and decreased use of street drugs among participants.
Advocacy groups taking matters into their own hands
Movement on this is happening far too slow for those on the front lines, however.
This summer, the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) requested an exemption from Health Canada to allow them to run a compassion club and test drugs at a large scale in B.C. Their request was rejected at the end of July, but DULF co-founder Eris Nyx said despite that they’ve been running it illegally since then.
Nyx said so far they’ve provided people with 200 grams of tested drugs, none of which have caused a fatal overdose. The group has also submitted an application to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking for it to overturn Health Canada’s decision.
“We are not criminals, we are simply people who care about those we love,” Nyx said, speaking at the Wednesday press conference. “We will do whatever we have to, by whatever means necessary to keep (them) safe.”
At the end of May, Health Canada did approve a decriminalization exemption request from the B.C. government for the first time in Canadian history. Beginning on Jan. 31 for a three-year trial period, people in B.C. will be allowed to carry up to 2.5 cumulative grams of illicit opioids on them if it is for personal use.
Advocates have called the 2.5-gram threshold unreasonably low for many drug users, though, and impossibly low for anyone – such as DULF – looking to provide a safe supply.
Drug users, advocates feel unheard
Among the dozen speakers Wednesday, all of them expressed frustration at the government for not seriously listening to drug users’ needs.
“Very, very rarely does our input actually get implemented,” Tanis Oldenburger, project co-ordinator of Chilliwack Overdose Prevention Society, said.
The government is “fiddling” while community groups are doing the actual work, Dylan Griffith of Kootenay Insurrection for Safe Supply added.
“Stop pretending you know what’s best for us. You don’t. We do,” he said.
In a statement recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson expressed thanks to all those on the front lines of the crisis and acknowledged the need for more action on the part of government.
“We know there is more to do and we won’t stop working until we turn the tide on this crisis,” she said.
More than 10,000 people have died since B.C. declared the toxic drug supply a public health emergency in 2016. This year is on track for another record-setting number of people to die.