Advocates stepped up pressure for a safer supply of street drugs with rallies and events around the province Thursday, as British Columbia marked the sixth anniversary of the declaration of a public health emergency over soaring drug fatalities.
Since former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared the emergency in 2016, more than 9,400 people have died due to toxic drugs. Last year was the deadliest year yet, with the province recording at least 2,232 drug fatalities.
In Victoria, advocates for drug policy change rallied at the Ministry of Health saying progress has been too slow.
“The families and those impacted by this drug crisis are not going to go away, and we’re not going to be silent,” said Jennifer Howard with the group Moms Stop the Harm, as she called for a regulated and accessible supply of drugs.
“It is unacceptable for our hearts and minds that we could be at the sixth anniversary of this public health crisis … that we are losing six lives a day to this crisis. With the failed drug policies that are in existence, we will continue to see record deaths, and this is heartbreaking for families of this province.”
Drug policy advocate Shane Calder said he had hoped to see a major change in policy when the BC NDP took power in 2017.
But he said the sitting government’s approach to connecting users with clean drugs, which relies on them being diagnosed with a substance use disorder and being prescribed opioids, is far too narrow.
“The need is so tremendous we need to stop thinking of safe supply as a health-care measure for a disease, and as a way of to save lives. That has to switch,” he said.
“We see no new programs, we see no new services, and we don’t see the emergency in this emergency public health order.”
Activists with several B.C. groups that have been handing out cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine that they have tested for purity themselves also held a joint media event Thursday calling for immediate access to clean drugs.
Eris Nyx with the Drug User Liberation Front said activists had handed out 17 grams of the substances so far, with no plans to stop unless the provincial and federal governments come up with a regulated way to distribute drugs to people who use them.
“What we need is regulation of a deregulated market. You would not see alcohol toxicity grow to the point where it is killing 10,000 people over six years,” Nyx said.
“Alcohol is the most dangerous drug of all, yet it is regulated. Why do we regulate it? Because we know prohibition fails. Much the same as the prohibition of alcohol, so too is the prohibition of drugs.”
Charlene Burmeister, executive director of the Coalition of Substance Users of the North, said it was frustrating to see how differently the province handled its other ongoing major public health emergency.
“We need to see the same urgency that we saw with COVID. There was implementation of things that made sense, supported people when COVID hit and it was instantaneous,” she said.
“We have not had the same privilege as people who use drugs in terms of the value of our lives.”
Earlier Thursday, the province’s chief coroner also repeated her own long-standing appeal for greater access to untainted drugs.
Lapointe said illicit drugs are so toxic that fentanyl is killing 80 per cent of substance users and an overdose-reversing drug is increasingly not useful because substances often contain a benzodiazepine that knocks people out.
She called for a novel response that would also include a clear path to treatment so people aren’t dying on wait lists, as well as research into whether services offered by private organizations are effective.
B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson defended the province’s approach to the drug crisis, saying fatalities actually went down in 2019, before the pandemic hit and people became more isolated.
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She said B.C. was the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe drugs in 2020, and that the province expanded the program last year to include more substances. The ministry says more than 12,000 people are currently getting prescribed supply.
But Malcolmson said the death toll remained horrific, and said work was underway to scale up the response.
“It’s system change that takes longer than we would like,” Malcolmson said. “Advocates are right, more is needed.”
That “more,” however, will not include regulating the sale and distribution of drugs, Malcolmson said, saying such a change would have to come from the federal government.
B.C.’s vision, she maintained, involves embedding mental health care and addictions services into the health-care system.
“Every week there are more changes and more people getting connected with safe supply and new medications like fentanyl patches can now be prescribed as a way to replace illicit street drugs,” she said.
It’s an approach that likely won’t satisfy drug policy activists like Nyx, who told media Thursday that if the government won’t regulate and distribute drugs, advocates will do it themselves.
“We will go through them if we have to,” Nyx said.
-With files from the Canadian Press