The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island will soon be home to British Columbia’s next pilot project delivering a “safe supply” of drugs to people with addictions.
The move comes as the region grapples both with COVID-19, and a wave of overdose fatalities, including among youth.
On Thursday, the BC Coroners Service reported 175 people had died of suspected drug overdoses in June, the province’s highest-ever monthly death toll.
Cowichan elder Joe Thorne told Global News the community had just laid a 14-year-old girl to rest this week.
“It’s causing us to hurt. It’s causing parents to lose precious gifts in their children. Four funerals. Four in four weeks,” he said.
“That’s an average of one child a week, (lost) to drugs.”
The federal and provincial governments have partnered with Island Health for the $2 million project.
Clinicians with Cowichan Valley Wellness and Recovery Centre in Duncan will provide hydromorphone, a pharmaceutical-grade opioid, as an alternative to street drugs which have become highly contaminated with deadly additives like carfentanil.
The service will be available to 25 drug users who have not responded to other forms of treatment.
The four-year pilot also comes with wrap-around services, including peer support, medical care and mental health support.
“We do know that it doesn’t matter where the go to buy their drugs, it’s deadly,” said Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour.
“This is a start.”
Seymour said he did not condone or encourage drug use, but that he recognized the reality of addiction.
He said providing a safe alternative along with counselling at least opens a pathway for people who want to get away from drugs.
“We can’t expect these guys to just put down their drugs today and a minute later they’re going to be okay,” he said.
“It doesn’t work that way. It has to be done on their own, they have to want to do it.”
Health officials have warned about the growing toxicity of B.C. street drugs for years, and say the problem has been made worse due to the closure of borders amid COVID-19.
The province established its own emergency protocol earlier this spring that would allow clinicians to prescribe pharmaceutical opioids to people in danger of overdosing.
On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry renewed her call to the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of drugs.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has also backed the policy.