Five years into a public health emergency as the death toll from toxic street drugs in B.C. continues to mount, April 14 has come to mark a grim anniversary and an unofficial day of mourning in the province.

More than 7,000 people have died from toxic drugs in the half-decade since authorities declared overdose deaths a public health crisis in 2016.

Yet more than five people continue to die on a daily basis in B.C., and the numbers — inflamed by the pandemic — are rising, not falling.

Bound by love and loss, mothers of the dead gathered outside the legislature in Victoria on Wednesday to demand government decriminalize the personal possession of drugs and provide people who use them better access to a safe supply.

The same day, activists with the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) gathered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to hand out safe, tested heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to people who need them, but can't access through the medical system.

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), said the anniversary is disheartening and demonstrates actions by policymakers have not been enough to address the worsening crisis.

A total of 1,716 people lost their lives to toxic street drugs across B.C. in 2020, the worst year on record. And people are dying at a similar rate this year, McBain said.

As of the end of February, B.C. has recorded 329 fatal overdoses.

“It doesn't mean that we stopped fighting for what we need, but it’s a sombre reminder of how little distance we've come in solving this problem,” said McBain, who lost her son Jordan Miller to a drug overdose in 2014.

“Very little has been done that would make one think this is an emergency,” she added. “There have been small steps to try to mitigate the number of deaths, but, obviously, they have not been successful. And I would even say they have failed.”

“We’re in the worst place we’ve ever been. The very tepid and incremental moves by government don't keep up with the scale of the problem," says activist Garth Mullins on B.C.'s progress in dealing with the toxic drug overdose crisis.

A national network of families more than 2,000 members strong and growing — MSTH will continue to advocate for progressive changes in law and policy that will help end the overdose crisis, McBain said.

Decriminalization of simple possession of drugs is an absolutely necessary step in dealing with the shame and impacts that aggravate the overdose crisis, she said.

“Throwing a person into the criminal justice system because they possess a small amount of drugs in their pocket for personal use is incredibly expensive.”

What’s more, charges and a potential criminal record for such a frivolous offence have far-reaching impacts, she added.

“It can ruin a person’s life. It affects their life, and it affects their family. There are just so many ramifications that are unnecessary.”

Province promises $45 million over three years

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson announced Wednesday the province will spend $45 million over three years to further enhance supervised consumption sites, naloxone supply and outreach teams across the province.

The minister also reiterated the province’s intention to seek an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act previously revealed in February.

More measures will also be unveiled when the budget is released April 20, Malcolmson said.

The province has led the way in Canada by providing pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs, as well as extending the ability of nurses to prescribe safe drugs, the minister said in a written statement.

Government response called tepid, incremental

However, peer advocate and broadcaster Garth Mullins described the provincial response to the public health crisis as anemic.

“We’re in the worst place we’ve ever been,” Mullins said.

“The very tepid and incremental moves by government don't keep up with the scale of the problem.

“And the level of boldness and urgency that 7,000 deaths calls for just isn’t there.”

Advocates are calling on government to increase safe supply after thousands have died in B.C.'s toxic drug overdose crisis. File photo by Nathaniel Canuel

B.C. doesn’t have to wait and rely on a possibly reluctant federal government to co-operate around decriminalization, Mullins said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlined steps in 2019 — such as amending B.C.’s Police Act — that government could take on its own, he said.

“They chose to disregard Bonnie Henry's suggestions to have a made-in-B.C. solution,” Mullins said.

“Yet they’re writing to a federal government which has said several times they’re not interested in decriminalization ... and that is gearing up for an election,” he said.

“I'm not sure who's doing the political calculus there, but maybe they know something I don't.”

The strength and contamination of illicit street drugs is only going to continue to get worse, Mullins said.

People who use drugs need low-barrier access to safe supply that includes what they need or use, he added.

“We have to make what people are buying on the street available to them in the prescription form immediately,” Mullins said.

While that would include primary health providers prescribing safe drugs, it should also include co-operatives formed by people who use drugs dispensing them, he said.

“You know, something like cannabis compassion clubs back in the day,” he said, adding neither level of government has shown much enthusiasm for the idea.

Progressive steps to move policy forward — as was the case around needle distribution or supervised injection sites — will most likely depend on people who use drugs, Mullins said.

“It had to be done illegally first to kind of embarrass the government into allowing the permitted version,” he said.

“So, that's probably going to be the same with safe supply.”

Case in point is Wednesday’s protest where community activists distributed tested, illicit drugs to screened substance users in Vancouver while risking arrest, Mullins said.

“It's going to be up to drug users to work out methods of keeping ourselves safe.”

Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer