Deadly April inflames drug debate. Does B.C. need more safe supply, or less?

Click to play video: 'Sobering new numbers raise questions about B.C.’s toxic drug fight'
Sobering new numbers raise questions about B.C.’s toxic drug fight
WATCH: Another set of sobering numbers on toxic drug overdose deaths in B.C. has rekindled the debate over whether the government's harm reduction programs are working. Paul Johnson reports, and Keith Baldrey has more on the criticism aimed at the province's safe supply program. – May 18, 2023

At least 206 people died of toxic drugs in April, according to the latest data from the BC Coroners Service, adding fuel to the debate over how to handle the province’s deadly drug crisis.

The latest numbers show at least 814 drug deaths in the first four months of the year, with fentanyl detected in about eighty per cent of the fatalities.

“This drug poisoning crisis is the direct result of an unregulated drug market. Members of our communities are dying because non-prescribed, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is poisoning them on an unprecedented scale,” Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said.

Click to play video: 'April toxic drug death numbers released'
April toxic drug death numbers released

The numbers arrive as drug use — and in particular, the issue of safer supply and prescribing tested drugs to people with addictions — has taken centre stage as an explosive political issue in B.C.

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The province issued new guidelines on prescribing opioids to people with substance use disorders early in the COVID-19 pandemic in a bid to reduce street drug deaths, break people with addictions away from drug dealers and better connect them with health care and services.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has pledged to cancel safe supply if elected, and B.C.’s opposition BC United has repeatedly raised concerns that prescribed opioids are being diverted to the street, and potentially to youth.

“It’s clear that things are not working — we need the government to urgently take a look at the strategies that have been employed so far and really do a better job of identifying what is working and what is not and start delivering resources that are actually going to be effective in bringing down the number of deaths,” BC United mental health and addictions critic Elenore Sturko said.

She said she’s heard from a number of doctors working in addictions medicine with concerns about the program, but who are unwilling to speak out publicly due to worry over professional repercussions.

“I don’t see how the chief coroner and this government can say with any definitiveness there is no impact of the safe supply program. I think it’s irresponsible for this government to put out that kind of statement when they have not done their due diligence to monitor the program.”

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BC United’s drug plan focuses heavily on treatment rather than harm reduction, proposing free treatment on demand, more treatment beds, and involuntary treatment for the most at-risk youth and adults.

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Advocates for drug users, youth and the chief coroner have pushed back against the recent safe supply concerns, saying there is no evidence the program is leading to increased addiction or death, and adding that “clean” drugs are necessary to keep people alive long enough to receive treatment.

Click to play video: '‘Safe drug’ supply program launched in Cowichan Valley'
‘Safe drug’ supply program launched in Cowichan Valley

Speaking with CKNW’s The Jill Bennett Show, Lapointe said the debate about safer supply needs to stay focused on evidence, not “anonymous anecdotes” and “rumour.”

“We know for a fact that people are not dying (from safer supply), including children. The rates of death amongst those under 19 have not increased at all since safer supply was introduced,” Lapointe said.

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“And safer supply is not widespread across our province. That’s another myth. Compared to the number of people who use substances, very few have access to safer supply. But youth are not dying as a result of hydromorphone.”

B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said that as of May there were 5,044 people being prescribed a safer supply of opioids provincewide.

Lapointe added that the conversation about drug use all too often focuses on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where 300 people died of toxic drugs in 2022.

An additional 2,000 people died elsewhere in the province last year, she said, with high rates in the north, Merritt and Prince George — where safer supply is not readily accessible for most people.

“This crisis is not being driven in any shape or form by safer supply. This crisis is being driven by fentanyl in communities big and small,” Lapointe said.

“I’m not sure people really understand this. People from all walks of life, people who work, people who go to school, people with families, they are people just like us.”

Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver’s top doctor calls for safe drug supply'
Metro Vancouver’s top doctor calls for safe drug supply

B.C. Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth said she reviews all cases of death and serious injury involving children and youth, including toxicology reports — and has seen no evidence of diversion of safe supply as a contributing factor.

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What’s more, she said that while it may be politically unpalatable, the province needs to have a difficult conversation about expanding safe supply to youth.

Young people are already using drugs, she said, many to cope with trauma, mental health crises or as survivors of sexual assault.

“My wish and hope for all young people is that they’re thriving. But if they are dying there is no chance they’re moving to a place of thriving, so we have to figure out harm reduction as well as all the interventions and treatment,” she said.

“Is it the only thing? Absolutely not. But we have to be open to having those really hard conversations in order to say what are we going to do because we’ve never been in this situation where we have this level of poison and constantly changing combinations of poison that is outstripping our ability to respond.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says Ottawa will continue to partner with B.C. on solutions for toxic drug supply crisis'
Trudeau says Ottawa will continue to partner with B.C. on solutions for toxic drug supply crisis

Guy Felicella, a harm reduction advocate who has himself recovered from addiction, described the latest numbers as “heartbreaking,” and said the conversation needs to be about saving lives in a drug market awash with fentanyl.

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“The limited access to these safer supply services is just so tiny,” he told Global News.

“It’s turned into this political football, and really what it boils down to is political opportunism, it isn’t about saving lives, it’s about power. And the deaths of nearly seven people every day should not be used to score political points.”

Felicella said he regularly works with drug users, including youth, and that the current attacks on safe supply and drug users are “driving people further into isolation.”

He said he supports treatment options, but noted they’re just one tool and that not everyone using drugs is addicted. Treatment options only work for people who are alive to use them, he added.

“The challenge is the illicit drug supply is just that crippling,” he said.

Thursday’s report on toxic drug deaths showed that the majority of fatalities (77 per cent) continue to be among men. Seven in 10 people who died of toxic drugs were between the ages of 30 and 59.

Just under 60 per cent of the deaths occurred in the Vancouver Coastal or Fraser Health regions. However, the per-capita rate of deaths was highest in the Northern Health region, at 62 per 100,000 population.

The vast majority of deaths (83 per cent) continued to happen indoors, with 48 per cent in private homes, 35 per cent being in other residences including social housing, single-room occupancy hotels and other indoor locations.


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