Drug users are the solution to addressing overdose deaths and providing services to people before they die alone, says a woman who attended a meeting of health professionals in Vancouver trying to develop new strategies to deal with a growing crisis in B.C.
Karen Ward, a board member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, was among about 20 drug users who joined doctors, including the provincial health officer, and the chief coroner at the all-day meeting Friday.
Ward lives and works in the Downtown Eastside, where North America’s first supervised injection facility opened in 2003 and multiple resources are available for people who use illicit substances.
She said there’s less stigma in the neighbourhood compared with other areas where people often don’t use available services, such as overdose prevention sites, because they feel stigmatized.
“We need to emphasize that we are not part of the solution but actually we are the solution. Through empowering drug users to take control of our lives we can find a way out of this,” Ward told a news conference.
“What we’re coming away from thus far in (Friday’s) meeting is that first, the war on drugs has failed. The war on drugs is a war on drug users and we’re dying, thousands of us.”
Ward said people in all sectors of society are dying alone in their homes so support networks need to be spread across the province to prevent the crisis from escalating further.
The meeting focused on the need for safer alternatives to the current drug supply and an examination of existing drug policy and stigma surrounding drug use in a province where 1,400 people have fatally overdosed since January 2016.
Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the BC Centre for Disease Control, said it’s time for policy-makers to use a patient or client-centred approach to deal with the overdose issue and that drug users are the ones with the “lived experience.”
“The overdose crisis in B.C. and across Canada is not getting better,” he said, adding about 140 people attended the meeting.
The City of Vancouver said Friday that more than 400 people could fatally overdose in Vancouver this year based on the number of deaths so far.
“That’s more than the total number of overdose deaths in Vancouver for the previous three years combined with no end in sight,” the city said in a news release.
Twenty-seven people died last month, based on figures from the police department, the city said. Toxicology reports on the most recent deaths are not yet complete and the coroner also needs to confirm the final numbers.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city has no idea what the province did with $10 million in federal funding provided last February to address the overdose crisis.
Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, said money was spent before the cheque arrived and the rest has been allotted to deal with the ongoing problem.
Kendall urged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of potentially deadly illicit opioids before end-of-school celebrations.
He said in a letter to be distributed at middle and high schools that 19 youths between the ages of 14 and 18 have died from overdoses since January 2016.
He said the youngest person was a 14-year-old who was experimenting with drugs.
“Non-judgmental and supportive conversations about substance use and overdose risks can save lives.”
He said up to two-thirds of overdoses in B.C. are due to the painkiller fentanyl, which has been detected in other opioids including heroin, methadone and codeine as well as cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamines.
Older children should be encouraged to take responsibility at parties where drugs may be available and call 911 knowing they will not face criminal consequences, Kendall said.
He said the overdose-reversing drug naloxone should also be provided and parents who are illicit drug users themselves should carry it and be prepared to perform rescue breathing before help arrives, potentially preventing brain damage.