B.C. mother who lost two sons to drug crisis calls for change as numbers grow

Click to play video: 'B.C. breaks record for overdose deaths in 2023'
B.C. breaks record for overdose deaths in 2023
WATCH: More grim figures from the BC Coroner's Service on the number of illicit drug deaths. New figures show a record number of British Columbians were killed by toxic, illicit drugs in 2023. Global News Morning speaks with Recovery and Harm Reduction Expert Guy Felicella about where the province is failing in its attempt to get a handle on the toxic drug crisis. – Jan 25, 2024

Another grim milestone has been reached as a result of B.C.’s toxic drug supply, and the Okanagan was not left unscathed.

At least 2,511 people died from unregulated toxic drugs in B.C. throughout 2023, an average of seven people a day.

It’s the highest number of deaths since a public health emergency was declared in 2016.

In Kelowna, 101 people died in 2023 from the toxic drug supply, compared to 47 when the emergency was declared seven years earlier.

In Vernon, there were 51 deaths, a rise from the 12 deaths reported in 2016.

In Penticton, there were 22 deaths last year, compared to seven in 2016.

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B.C. family marks one-year anniversary of fatal overdose

Fentanyl was detected in 86 per cent of deaths each year between 2017 and 2023, according to B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, who provided an update on the public health emergency on Wednesday.

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She reiterated her call for changes that would allow the prescription of a safer substitute for deadly street drugs, asking, “How many more families will join these statistics next year?”

“Prescribed safer supply is simply not able to address the scale of the public health emergency in which we find ourselves,” LaPointe said.

“One million people in our province don’t have access to a family doctor, never mind the focused and specialized expertise needed to address a public health emergency of this magnitude.”

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Drug dealer sentenced in Langley teen’s death

This call for action is no different than the one that Kelowna safe-supply advocate Helen Jennens has made over and over again in the years since her boys were both killed by overdoses.

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Tyler and Rian, she’s told the world, aren’t just statistics in an ever-growing death toll. They were young men who were loved and had a life to live.

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In death, they pushed Jennens into a life of advocacy through Moms Stop the Harm, an organization aimed at making sure fewer people walk in her footsteps and feel her grief caused by an unregulated drug supply.

She’s keenly aware, however, that the changes needed aren’t coming, just yet.

“It seems to be ramping up if anything … I just don’t understand what state of emergency means in B.C., if that’s what happens,” she said.

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Emergency crews respond to several overdoses on Halloween

“It’s shocking and devastating and when is it going to end? Are we the only ones who care…  the people who have lost loved ones? Are we the only ones who really care? Because the government just is not stepping up?”

She said that the Chief Coroner’s frustration with the lack of change resonates with her.

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“She’s really calling out the politicians on their lack of really doing anything about this crisis,” she said.

“And she’s accusing them of politicizing this and using these deaths as fodder, instead of really working hard on solutions with people that are knowledgeable about substance use and addiction. And she accuses them of knowing nothing about it. They’re politicians. They aren’t doctors.”

The only thing that will actually stop the deaths, Jennens said, is taking the people out of the black market.

“There’s only one way to do that and that’s a safe regulated supply, which is a very complex issue,” she said.

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“I’m not going to stand out on the corner handing out diacetylmorphine. That’s not what it’s all about. It’s about connecting with someone in substance use and keeping them alive, and maybe helping them with their mental health and their general health in coming to a system of treatment and recovery.”

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Offering further perspective on the impact of these deaths,  Jennens said when she joined Moms Stop the Harm in 2016, she was the 12th member. Now there are more than 4,000 members. The growth in their ranks reflects that since the crisis was declared in April 2016, 13,794 lives have been lost across the province.

The province’s experts estimate some 225,000 British Columbians are currently accessing the drugs through the illicit market.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside has already rejected the suggestion of prescription-free substances. In her Wednesday press conference, she said the province’s working to address the “spectrum of need,” including housing, treatment and recovery.

“I want to assure British Columbians that my commitment to ending this crisis is unwavering,” Whiteside said.

“We know that when someone makes the brave decision to seek help, they need to be met with access to the services that they need and they need care that is specific to their own unique needs. We do know that we are making a difference.”

— With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey.

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