April 14 marks five years since B.C. declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. But half a decade later, overdoses are still increasing and advocacy groups are calling for more government action.
In 2016, the overdose issue might have gone unnoticed to many British Columbians. That was true for Jennifer Howard.
“I couldn’t imagine that was something that would ever impact me,” Howard told Black Press Media.
But one month after the declaration, she lost her son Robby to an overdose. When he died at the age of 24, Howard said Robby was incredibly loved and had dreams for the future. But the life trauma he had experienced, along with struggling through anxiety and depression, led Robby to substance use.
He died, like the majority of B.C.’s drug deaths, while at home.
“He couldn’t reach out and share that he was struggling,” Howard said.
She wonders if her son’s life could’ve been saved if there was no substance-use stigma and Robby, like many others, didn’t have to hide his addiction. She wishes he could’ve asked for help without the fear of judgment or repercussions.
“Our response needs to be in a health-care model, where we support people, where there isn’t shame and stigma attached to drug use and where people have the right to proper medical support and care.”
The most recent information from the BC Coroners Service shows 2020 was the province and Victoria’s deadliest year of the crisis yet. B.C. had 1,724 drug toxicity deaths in 2020, up from the previous high of 1,550 people in 2018. With the exception of 2019, overdose deaths in the province have increased every year since the public health emergency declaration and 2020 had almost three times the 2015 total.
Victoria overdose deaths also hit a new peak in 2020, totalling 122 people – almost two times the 2019 total. The capital city has consistently had the third highest amount of overdose deaths over the last decade.
Moms Stop the Harm — a group of people who have lost loved ones to overdose and advocates for life-saving drug policy and support — says the number of British Columbians dying from preventable overdoses is unacceptable. Howard, the group’s program director, said stigma at all levels of government is to blame for the ongoing crisis and saving lives will take political will and funding.
“We are demanding an immediate response regarding safe supply for those who struggle (with substance use),” she said.
Howard said safe substance supply would give people stability while they receive support for the complex factors that can lead people to substance use — such as experienced trauma, mental health issues or poverty.
Saving lives means ensuring drug users have access to safe and regulated options so they don’t have to turn illicit sources that could contain toxic and deadly substances, Howard said — adding that fentanyl is found in 87 per cent of illicit drugs.
“So much more has to be done to address this issue, but the first thing that we need to do is ensure that people are safe,” she said. “What we know now is substance use has no economic boundaries, it can happen to anyone.”
Moms Stop the Harm is holding a masked and distanced event, from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the B.C. legislature on April 14 for the declaration’s fifth anniversary. They’ll be calling on the government to immediately provide safe supply options for every B.C. community and for the decriminalization of illicit drug possession.
Howard said the collective grief felt by B.C. families can’t be measured.
“I miss (Robby) every day,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him.”
From 2016 to the end of this February, 7,072 British Columbians have died due to overdose.