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Where’s the plan?
That was the dominant question asked Thursday as B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe announced 1,716 people died from toxic street drugs in 2020, marking the worst year on record for the province.
The toxic illicit drug supply has claimed more lives than motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and prescription drug-related deaths combined in B.C., Lapointe said at a press conference.
Nearly 7,000 people have died since the province declared the drug overdose crisis a public emergency five years ago this April, she added.
“While many may think that deaths due to illicit drugs are confined to small areas or populations in our province, in fact, people are dying in communities across B.C., from all walks of life, and leaving behind broken-hearted family, friends and colleagues,” she said.
“We must turn this terrible trajectory around.”
Leslie McBain of Moms Stop the Harm, an advocacy group of thousands of mothers who have lost children to toxic drugs, said the province needs to go beyond taking incremental steps to deal with the health crisis.
“What is the plan? Where’s the plan?” McBain asked, specifically addressing Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson.
“I would also ask that the premier and the ministers respond today to these devastating numbers,” she said.
“It's like throwing Skittles at a charging rhinoceros,” said drug-use activist and broadcaster Garth Mullins describing B.C.'s measures to deal with the surge of fatal overdoses from toxic street drugs during the pandemic.
“Not a week from now or two months from now.”
The call for a wholesale response to end overdose deaths during the news conference was echoed by Lapointe and Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr, also the chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) drug advisory committee.
The province and the federal government need to establish a comprehensive continuum of care that also includes the decriminalization of drugs, and the safe supply of a full range of prescribed alternatives to street drugs, McBain said.
Lapointe and McBain acknowledged there have been positive steps forward, such as advocacy by the CACP to decriminalize drugs, measures to allow physicians and nurses to provide some prescribed alternatives to toxic street drugs, and new treatment beds.
But progress is slow and the measures to date are drops in a bucket, McBain said, noting five people a day were dying across the province during the dual public health emergency.
“We don’t need 100 (treatment) beds, we need 1,000,” she said.
Fatal overdoses in all corners of the province
The majority of the overdose deaths last year were in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, with the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities recording 568 and 472 fatalities respectively, according to the coroner’s report.
However, 263 people died in the Island Health region in 2020, the worst year on record for toxic drug deaths in the health authority. Of the total deaths, 132 people died in the south Vancouver Island health service area, 97 in central Vancouver Island and 31 in the north region.
The vast majority of fatal overdoses across B.C. took place indoors, with fentanyl playing a role in 80 per cent of the deaths, said the BC Coroners Service.
Close to 70 per cent of the people killed by toxic street drugs were aged 30 to 59, and males accounted for 81 per cent of deaths.
Working to separate people from poisoned supply
The province is going to continue to build a system of mental health and addictions care that works and saves lives, the minister of mental health and addictions said following the coroner’s report.
"I am committed to continuing our unrelenting response to the overdose crisis, to finding even more ways to support and separate people from the poisoned drug supply,” said Malcolmson.
The minister pointed to the premier’s call to the federal government to move forward on decriminalization for the personal possession of drugs, and establishing the ability of primary health-care providers to prescribe alternatives to illicit drugs.
“This is ground-breaking in Canada, nobody's done this before,” said Malcolmson, adding she’s aware more needs to happen.
Drug-use activist and broadcaster Garth Mullins agreed that the province lacks a co-ordinated response to the crisis.
“We've certainly been saying ... for years there's no plan,” Mullins said, adding isolated, ad hoc steps by all levels of government are insufficient to deal with the enormity of the crisis.
“It's like throwing Skittles at a charging rhinoceros,” he said.
“There's no one in charge. There’s the diffusion of responsibility (between ministries) and there's just tinkering at the edges.”
The coroners service, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and drug-user groups have repeatedly outlined the actions needed to deal with the overdose crisis, Mullins said.
Horgan has the means to decriminalize personal drug possession in B.C. without passing the buck to the federal government, Mullins added, saying Henry provided the province with a blueprint to sidestep inaction by Ottawa.
Additionally, people using drugs need access to the prescribed drugs they want and need, rather than the limited options available to them now, he said.
“I want them to prescribe as much as they can, of everything they can,” he said, noting plenty of research has already demonstrated the benefits of prescribing heroin.
Both McBain and Lapointe confessed frustration at repeating the same calls for change each month as overdose deaths surged during the pandemic.
“You do just feel like throwing your hands in the air and saying, 'What's the use?'” said Lapointe.
“But, of course, we can’t do that. These people deserve a voice, and as coroners, we always say we speak for the dead.
“And that's one of the things that we can do is provide the conduit to the lives of these people,” she said.
“They all had families, they were loved, they had dreams, they had hopes.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer