Provincial chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has released death figures for the first six months of the year attributed to toxic drug supply and a local spokesperson says more must be done to prevent these deaths.
More than 1,200 deaths in BC were attributed to drug toxicity by Lapointe, with 184 in June alone.
qathet region Community Action Team (CAT) coordinator Kathryn Colby said BC is now seven years into a declared health emergency.
“At this point, calling anything a health emergency that’s not treated as such is kind of a joke,” said Colby. “We also know that every single life lost to poisoned drugs is due to absolutely failed drug policy, which is something that’s pointed out again and again, both in the evidence, and around the world with places that have decriminalized drugs.
“We continue to be one of the more impacted communities in our region. We don’t really see a lot of alleviation of the crisis coming anytime soon.”
Colby said almost $1 million is circulating in the community for various overdose response efforts.
She said some programs are incredibly innovative, and that they are reaching more people than ever before, working to keep people safe and responding to overdose in a good way.
“But the depth of tide seems to just keep coming in on the shore,” said Colby. “It seems like there’s nothing much we can do about it other than what we’re doing, which is mostly just scrambling on the ground at this point.”
Colby said the CAT is meeting on July 24, and one of the primary things it is going to discuss is: Where is the centralized response?
“This is actually a real systems problem,” said Colby. “It’s a systemic problem. We know that systems problems don’t go away through localized action. I would love for the minister [of mental health and addictions Jennifer Whiteside] to spend a bit more time explaining what she means by building an integrated and seamless system of mental health and addictions.
“However, we won’t stop working until we end this crisis. We’ve been working inside of this crisis for seven years since the public-declared emergency.”
Colby said it doesn’t seem like things are getting better, but she shudders to think how things would be worse if the community wasn’t moving through the initiatives that are in place now, like the overdose prevention site, the actions of the CAT, et cetera, but it seems like things are just getting a bit more squeezed.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re constantly failing people, every time there’s a death in our community,” said Colby. “I can’t tell you the exact stats, but I can tell you that we lose people every single month in this community.”
Services for people using substances in the qathet region are well-used. Colby said, for example, there are 1,000 visits per month to the overdose prevention site and there have been no fatalities.
“So clearly, it’s helping the situation, but it’s not a cure,” said Colby. “It’s definitely what I would consider to be a band-aid solution over top of failed drug policy.”
When asked if safe drug supply was being advocated, Colby said safe supply works.
“We’ve looked at addiction in a criminalized way for a long time, instead of like a mental health disorder, which is where it needs to squarely land. We know there are medications that help with substance use disorder; there are treatments that can happen in our community for substance use disorder.
“People have the largest amount of success when they can recover in their home communities. The idea that we have to send people away to get well, so they can come back, is not actually real. It’s just a problem of systemic misunderstanding of what substance use medicine and substances opportunities look like.”
Colby added that there are models in other parts of the world working for people afflicted with substance use disorder. She said, for example, in Scandinavian models that are known about, the Scandinavians see harm reduction in the same way the team does in qathet, which is a recovery-oriented modality of making people healthy and safe.
“We know it creates an entire insulating system of support that prevents problematic substance use, or treats problematic substance use in situ, which means in community, and those are the models we will continue to advocate for because it sees the whole person, and it sees them as community members who belong here and deserve to be well in their home communities,” said Colby.
She said the Community Action Team here will continue to advocate at the provincial and federal levels for solutions.
The chief coroner stated in a media release that British Columbia is continuing to lose community members at record rates as a result of the toxicity of the unregulated drug market.
“Illicit fentanyl continues to drive the crisis, which is causing deaths in large and small municipalities, towns and cities across the province,” stated Lapointe.
As has been the case for more than a decade, illicit fentanyl continues to be the primary driver in unregulated drug deaths, the release stated. Fentanyl and/or a fentanyl analogue was present in more than 90 per cent of expedited toxicological testing in June.
The lives of at least 12,509 British Columbians have been lost to unregulated drugs since the public health emergency was first declared in April 2016, the release stated. That’s not too far short of City of Powell River’s population.