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Okanagan mothers speak out on 5th anniversary of B.C. overdose health emergency

Click to play video: 'Okanagan mothers speak out to save lives'
Okanagan mothers speak out to save lives
Okanagan mothers who lost their children to drug overdoses are speaking out as B.C. marks a somber 5th year anniversary since the province declared a public health emergency due to the opioid epidemic. Since then, illicit drugs have claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people in this province, and with the pandemic exacerbating the problem, we're expected to see another year of record-shattering death tolls. Shelby Thom reports on the urgent calls for action from family members who implore to spare others the grief they experience – Apr 14, 2021

Jill Martens, now a member of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, lost her son, Daniel, to a lethal dose of fentanyl. He was just one week shy of his 24th birthday.

“The physician told me Daniel had overdosed, they’d already done a CT scan on his brain, and that he was brain dead,” Martens told Global News on Wednesday.

Read more: Virtual vigil planned in Penticton, B.C. to mark 5-year anniversary of overdose crisis

The group gathered at Gyro Park to erect signs and plaster posters on the bandshell ahead of a virtual vigil to mark a sombre five years since B.C. declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

“Our children are dead, they’re gone, we are here to help save other parents and families from facing the brutal reality that we get up and face every single morning,” Martens said.

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Click to play video: '“The worst day of my life” Grieving Penticton mother seeks solace at addictions treatment centre, which is slated to close, following son’s overdose death.'
“The worst day of my life” Grieving Penticton mother seeks solace at addictions treatment centre, which is slated to close, following son’s overdose death.

Another mother, Jackie Botbijl, said her 38-year old daughter, Leisha, died of a carfentanil overdose in 2017. She remembers the agonizing trip to the ICU at Kelowna General Hospital like it was yesterday.

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“To see all those machines and to hear them going, it was very traumatic,” she said, her voice breaking.

The province had started to see a decease in overdose deaths, until the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, disrupting drug supply chains, resulting in highly toxic and unpredictable street drugs.

“The illicit drug market is a terrifying and chaotic source of supply and while we know naloxone is generally effective at reversing opioid overdoses, it is often not effective against these concoctions of opioids, sedatives and stimulants,” said Lisa Lapointe, the chief coroner at the BC Coroners Service, on Wednesday.

Click to play video: 'UBC Okanagan offering drug testing services'
UBC Okanagan offering drug testing services

Tragically, more people died by overdose in 2020 than ever before in the province’s history.

The Okanagan isn’t immune. 17 deaths occurred in Penticton, B.C., in 2020, down from 21 deaths in 2019. Kelowna, B.C., recorded 62 deaths in 2020, up from 24 deaths in 2019, and Vernon saw 26 people die of a drug overdose in 2020, up from 14 deaths the year prior.

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Read more: Last month was B.C.’s deadliest-ever February for illicit drug overdoses

“The drug supply is incredibly toxic right now, and we need a safe supply to keep people alive,” Martens said.

“You can’t help a dead body and so if Daniel had been able to somehow get himself a dose of heroin that he knew was safe for his body, he could still be alive today.”

Jackie Botbijl is advocating for the decriminalization of simple possession of drugs.

Click to play video: 'Kelowna frontline RCMP officers dealing with increasing number of overdose calls'
Kelowna frontline RCMP officers dealing with increasing number of overdose calls

“I would like to see the decriminalization of drugs — we need to do that — but secondly they need to have facilities where they can go and receive the help that is needed,” she said.

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On Wednesday, Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, announced B.C. would formally ask Health Canada for an exemption to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs, although she could not provide a timeline on when the application will be submitted to the federal health agency.

“Recognizing that drug laws and enforcing them have had a punishing effect on people, driving them to use alone and putting their lives in serious, jeopardy, today B.C. is taking the next step to end the war on people who use drugs by formalizing our request to Health Canada for a province-wide section 56 exemption for personal possession of illicit drugs,” Malcolmson said.

Read more: B.C. records January’s largest ever total for lives lost due to illicit drugs

The province also committed $45 million over three years to expand overdose prevention services.

“By taking this step, we can reduce the fear and stigma, and shame that keeps people silent about drug use and this will support more people in reaching out for the health care support that they need.”

Malcolmson also said the provincial government is committed to expanding safe supply across the province.

Click to play video: 'Okanagan overdose numbers mirror B.C.’s record year'
Okanagan overdose numbers mirror B.C.’s record year

“We have had over the last year a 400-per cent increase in the number of people that are prescribing safe supply. It’s encouraging, it’s a first in Canada, but we are working to expand that, both access on the prescriber level and also the diversity of what is covered by that safe supply option,” she said.

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Families of loved ones who have died welcome the progress made on the initiatives, but they said what is lacking is a sense of urgency.

That message is echoed by the BC Liberals, who say the BC NDP needs to deliver a seamless mental health and addictions system with affordable and accessible treatment options.

“The overdose crisis has only continued to worsen over the last year as greater isolation, an increasingly toxic drug supply and reduced services continue to have a severe impact on British Columbians,” said Trevor Halford, critic for mental health and addictions.

“John Horgan and the NDP needs to urgently commit to a plan for a comprehensive mental health and addictions system — one that isn’t just reactionary or offering services that are too little too late. It isn’t enough to just invest in harm reduction and safe supply, we need a system that also invests in prevention, treatment, and enforcement and works to ensure people have access to appropriate care and supports necessary for recovery.”

For more information about Penticton’s virtual vigil, visit the event’s Facebook page. 

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