Seven years have passed since B.C. declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency, yet little has been done to reduce the number of lives taken by an increasingly toxic drug supply, say advocates.
Safe supply advocates and families impacted by substance use held a rally outside the Ministry of Health in downtown Victoria Friday (April 14) to mark the seventh anniversary of the public health emergency, and call for policy changes.
Jessica Michalofsky, a Camosun College instructor, said the most devastating thing that can happen to a parent is losing their child. She lost her 25-year-old son Aubrey, who had just finished his law and justice degree at Selkirk College in Castlegar, to toxic drug poisoning last year.
“It is this government’s policy to provide safe supply – back in July 2021 they announced that they were going to be unrolling supply of safer drugs for people,” she told the Victoria News at the rally.
“But as of right now, there’s only a few pilot projects in a few locations that actually offer that safe supply. So we need a massive expansion of that if we’re going to undercut the black market and actually save lives.”
Michalofsky’s son is just one of over 11,300 British Columbians and 1,800 Islanders who have died as a result of the crisis since April 2016. More than 800 have died over the same period in Greater Victoria alone.
Based on figures from the BC Coroners Service, illicit drug toxicity deaths have increased by 109 per cent in Greater Victoria from 2016 to 2022, while deaths have surged by 130 per cent provincewide.
“When we talk about treatment, we also need to realize that substance-use disorder for many people is a lifelong disease and people need comprehensive treatment – not just 30 days before coughing them out onto the street, where as soon as they have a moment of weakness, they reach out to the illicit supply and die,” said Michalofsky.
Registered nurse Sarah Lovegrove said she has seen a massive influx of people suffering from fatal overdoses over the last several years at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, where she works as a clinical instructor for Vancouver Island University.
She said the sharp rise in overdoses from opioids mixed with fentanyl, xylazine and benzodiazepines, compounded with COVID and staffing shortages, has left hospital staff struggling to provide the care that many need.
While Lovegrove wants to see the safe supply programs expanded across the province, she admitted safe supply alone is simply not enough.
“Housing is a health-care issue. When someone doesn’t have a home, they can’t get better, so it’s absolutely imperative that we get everyone housed,” she said.
“The province needs the political balls to do the right thing,” Moms Stop the Harm member Jennifer Howard put it bluntly. “They must provide an urgent response to this crisis, in the same way we saw with COVID. The contrast between these two public health emergencies is appalling.”
In a joint statement, Premier David Eby, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside, and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province will continue scaling up detox and recovery services across the full spectrum of care.
“Today, we deepen our resolve to save lives and improve lives, even as the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts have made the drug supply even more toxic for people in our province.”
In 2023 so far, 211 British Columbians have died as the result of a toxic drug poisoning.
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