With British Columbia on track to break a grim record, there’s renewed importance in this year’s International Overdose Awareness Day in the province.
Between January and June of 2022, there were nearly 1,100 deaths from illicit drug toxicity in B.C., according to the BC Coroner Service.
And if the deaths continue at the rate the province has seen this year, B.C. will record its highest number of overdose deaths in a single year.
An even more sobering statistic, more than 10,000 people have died from illicit toxic drugs since the public health emergency was declared six years ago.
Advocates have been pleading with federal and provincial governments to address issues in the opioid epidemic for years, but now have a renewed urgency as the deaths reach record numbers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also further complicated drug overdose issues and communities across the province have experienced a sharp rise in overdose deaths since the pandemic began.
“Canada saw a 96 per cent increase in opioid toxicity deaths (during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic) and deaths continue to remain high,” the BC Civil Liberties Association said.
“The BCCLA is demanding that all levels of government put health and human rights first by implementing progressive and comprehensive drug laws and policy, ending the criminalization and stigmatization of drug use, and expanding and scaling up harm reduction programs and measures, including an increase in safe injection and safe inhalation sites, and safe supply programs.”
Drug user-led organizations held a virtual press conference to address the staggering number of deaths recorded in the province over the last six years.
“This isn’t the same crisis we were facing in 2016 when it as declared a public health crisis,” said Kathleen Radu, with Moms Stop The Harm.
“It’s changing. The drug toxicity has changed, the numbers have gone up.”
Around a year ago, the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users submitted an exemptions request to the federal government to operate a cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine compassion club and fulfilment centre. Last month that request was rejected but it hasn’t stopped the centre from operating.
“We have been running the club illegally for one month and this day, August 31, celebrates our one month anniversary of running the club successfully, without overdose and without death,” said Eris Nyx, DULF cofounder.
“We have the solution.”
DULF said it has submitted a notice of application to the Supreme Court of Canada to review the decision.
The Drug User Liberation Front is an open collective community coalition that was formed to provide tangible solutions to B.C.’s overdose crisis.
Throughout Wednesday across the province, many events are being held to raise awareness about the dangers of illicit drugs.
Moms Stop The Harm is holding events in more than 20 locations around the province.
A full list of events can be found on its website.
In Vancouver, a candle-light vigil is being held at the Empress Hotel, Wednesday evening.
The B.C. government has issued a statement addressing International Overdose Awareness Day.
“On International Overdose Awareness Day, we also put faces to the names of those lost with the hope of breaking down the stigma associated with drug use. Fear and shame make people hide addiction and use drugs alone, which is deadly. Addiction is a health condition,” said Sheila Malcolmson, B.C. minister of mental health and addictions.
“Increasing support and reducing stigma is a key part of our government’s work to build a comprehensive and seamless continuum of mental-health and addictions care that works for everyone. It’s also why we are decriminalizing people who use drugs.
“While we have been adding treatment and harm-reduction services at an unprecedented rate, the increasing illicit drug toxicity has outstripped our addition of new overdose prevention services. Today and every day are reminders of the urgency of this work to save lives. We know there is more to do and we won’t stop working until we turn the tide on this crisis.”
Landmarks around Vancouver will be highlighted by purple lighting in solidarity with the overdose awareness day as well.