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New drugs, COVID measures feeding record-breaking Victoria overdose pace: expert

Pandemic measures make it harder for some to access services
Fred Cameron stands among the harm reduction supplies that are handed out by SOLID Outreach to those living on Pandora Avenue. (Black Press Media file photo)

As 2021 overdose deaths could be the highest of any year recorded across the province, volunteers in Victoria’s harm reduction community say the changing nature of drug use and the community-fracturing effect of COVID-19 measures prove the need for their services.

There were 1,204 illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C. between January and July, or almost six deaths per day. That is the highest amount ever recorded during the first seven months of the calendar year, according to a B.C. Coroners Service report released on Sept. 29.

July alone saw 184, the second-highest in one month after the 186 deaths in June 2020.

Victoria saw 87 deaths during the first seven months of 2021, the most after Vancouver’s 286 and Surrey’s 142.

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“The nature of drug use has changed,” said Fred Cameron, a coordinator for SOLID Outreach. For example, Benzodiazepine, usually used to medicate movement disorders, is now common in 2021’s supply of illicit opioids. Despite being well-trained to deal with opioid overdose through SOLID’s peer-to-peer support of clients at The Harbour, a safe consumption site, “a benzo overdose, mixed with fentanyl, changes the nature of (overdose),” Cameron said. “We had formed patterns in the way that we respond to an overdose and the time it takes. All of that has been thrown off by the presence of benzodiazepines.”

The opioid users whom Cameron typically helps have dissipated throughout Victoria as a result of COVID measures. “We’ve been doing this for 18 years now, but we’ve never seen anything like the COVID pandemic in the past,” Cameron said. “The population that we used to see on a day-to-day basis has been fractured and moved all over town.”

The migration is clear from the fewer needles collected by SOLID on Pandora Avenue and around the North Park neighbourhood, which Cameron said means increased use of local housing sites and the community’s movement further up the Gorge and Saanich Peninsula. Cameron said he fears SOLID’s services, such as drug testing and safe supply provision, have become more difficult for drug users to access, resulting in a rise in overdoses.

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