Helen Jennens wishes she didn’t know so much about illicit drugs.
But having lost both her sons to toxic drug overdoses, she’s become well versed in the topic.
For years, Jennens, who is with Moms Stop The Harm, has been calling on the provincial government to provide a safe drug supply, saying it’s the only way to reduce the growing number of deaths in B.C.
Now a report released by a panel of experts convened by the B.C. Coroners Service is urging the government to do just that.
“I’m not surprised because it had to come to this,” Jennens told Global News. “A little disappointed that it’s taken so long.”
Jennens lost her son Rian, 37, in 2011, then Tyler, 35, five years later.
“I don’t want other mothers to wake up to days like I had in 2011 in 2016 and have lost their kids … because there are lots of people using drugs,” she said.
Called the BC Coroners Service Death Review Panel: A Review of Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths, the report reveals that the primary cause of these deaths was “the increasingly toxic and unpredictable illicit drug supply in the province.”
It also said, “the current drug policy framework of prohibition is forcing substance users to access the unregulated market, leading to increased numbers of substance-related emergencies and deaths.”
The report examined 6,007 deaths between Aug. 1, 2017, and July 31, 2021.
It determined that the drug supply is becoming more toxic, that deaths are increasing and that the average age of people dying is 42.
“Illicit drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, accounting for more deaths and suicides, homicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related deaths combined,” said Michael Egilson, chair of the death review panel.
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Egilson said the report indicates that swift action is needed to save lives.
“This public health emergency shows no signs of abating and thousands more lives are at risk,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.
The three recommendations from the report include a safer drug supply, the development of a 30/60/90-day illicit drug toxicity action plan that includes monitoring, and the establishment of an “evidence-based continuum of care.”
Jennens said she’s hopeful the government will act on the recommendations.
“They have to,” she said. “They can’t get a panel of 49 members to do a review and come up with all these numbers and get a report that there are more deaths to drug harms than all the other accidental deaths combined, get a recommendation to the chief coroner of the province and then not follow through.
“I mean, they just have to do this.”
In response to the report, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, said “I recognize the B.C Coroners Service and panel members for their report on the devastating deaths in our province due to illicit toxic drugs.
“We know we must do more to combat the illicit toxic drug crisis, and our government is working hard every day to end this public health emergency.”
Malcolmson went on to say “this report confirms the urgency of the work underway by our government. Specifically, it calls on government to build an evidence-based continuum of care to deliver mental-health and substances services, including safer supply. And that is exactly what our government is doing.”
But Jennens said the recommendations need to be acted on now before more lives are lost.
“How long has this been underway? How many people have died while this was underway?” she said.
“This is urgently needed now today, we’ve been studying this too long. We know what to do. We just have to do it.”
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, around 9,000 British Columbians have lost their lives to toxic illicit drugs since the beginning of 2016.