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Wednesday marks five years since B.C. declared overdose crisis a public health emergency

Last Updated Apr 14, 2021 at 8:07 am MDT

A naloxone anti-overdose kit is shown in Vancouver, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Wednesday marks five years since B.C. declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency

Peer clinical advisor says we've started to make progress on harm reduction but some things haven't changed

Executive director with the BC Centre on Substance Use says the pandemic has only made things worse

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — This week marks a somber anniversary for British Columbia as five years ago, the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency.

The anniversary comes as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly impacted people who use drugs.

Cheyenne Johnson, the Executive Director of the BC Centre for Substance Use says the impact the pandemic has had on people who use drugs has led to catastrophic loss and hardship.

“Thinking when we’re in this year of a global pandemic, the numbers of Canadians that have died of overdose have far surpassed those who have died of COVID-19 in Canada. I think really what’s needed is an immediate response with interventions to address both the toxic drug supply and really what is at the root of the issue, which is bad drug policy,” she says.

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Johnson says the overdose crisis has intensified because of border closures brought on by the pandemic.

“It’s led to more toxicity and contamination in the supply because many of the supply chains that criminal organizations use to transport drugs have been disrupted. We’re seeing, for example, more benzodiazepine analogs, which is another type of a central nervous depressant — similar to alcohol and opioids that worsened overdose presentation.”

Johnson adds, there are also limitations on overdose prevention services because it’s limited to the number of people those facilities can support with social distancing.

She says governments can help address issues people who use drugs face by the decriminalization of certain drugs.

“We know that criminalizing people who use drugs does more harm and causes incredible amounts of harm in communities, and also it’s fueling the overdose crisis.”

She says governments can help by enhancing existing overdose responses and harm reduction initiatives and including a safer supply to the illicit drugs market.

“But in the meantime, we also really need to build and invest in an evidence-based system of care, because even if we did decriminalize tomorrow, we need to offer those who need addiction and substance use treatment and support a place to go. And right now, there are just not enough services in B.C.”

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In the last five years, Guy Felicella a Peer Clinical Advisor and recovery advocate, says 7,000 people have died drug-related deaths.

“That’s staggering. It’s not just 7,000 people. That’s 7,000 families, that’s communities, we’re talking the chain of events that this is impacted, and then rooted in shame and stigma, where it’s just as deadly as the drugs themselves, and our society is partly to blame because of it because of the way that we view substance use,” he says.

Felicella says while “We’ve moved the needle significantly on harm reduction interventions,” the province has failed to address the illicit drug supply by giving people access to a safer alternative across the province.

“What will it take? 250 people a month? Will it take 300 a month to sadly lose their lives to something preventable for the significant changes?”

Felicella says the ongoing parallel crisis reminds him of the HIV epidemic in the 90s.

“We’re repeating the same mistakes,” he says.

“We haven’t learned from our past, and we’re repeating the same mistakes now with another public health emergency where one gets addressed more significantly than the other, and that was the same with the AIDS crisis and also, now the COVID crisis.

The province is holding a press conference Wednesday at 10 a.m. to address the anniversary.