Standing beside a wall of 1,510 wooden roses — each representing a life lost to drug overdose — Mark Breslauer, CEO of United Way, addressed a crowd of approximately 50 people gathered in the Bay Centre downtown Victoria on Wednesday afternoon, welcoming them to the United Way Overdose Prevention Expo.
More than 18 different exhibitors from various organizations in the CRD were ready to educate the passing public on the opioid crisis at hand in one of four categories; information, harm reduction, recovery and youth services.
With opening remarks from Breslauer, Penny Sakamoto — highlighting the Overdose Prevention Resource Guide — and Victoria Police Chief Constable Del Manak who stated that of those 1,510 overdose deaths in 2018, 94 of those deaths were from the Greater Victoria area.
Police deal with drugs on a regular basis, on the front lines, and according to Manak, they’ve become their own subject matter experts. He says the best way to support people using is through a comprehensive public health strategy.
“In other words we must challenge ourselves to look for other approaches,” he says. “And those approaches do not involve the criminal justice system.”
Jennifer Howard was pleased to hear Manak say those words as the two main concerns of Moms Stop the Harm — a network of Canadian families who have lost loved one to overdosed or are dealing with addiction — are decriminalization of personal possession and safe regulated drug supply. Howard lost her 24-year-old son, Robby, in 2016 to a fentanyl overdose.
“He’s one of the statistics, he passed in the privacy of his home and we’re still not reaching those individuals,” she says. “We need to do more.”
Howard believes organizations need to be approaching the opioid crisis as a health concern. She wants to see evidence based therapy made more available to the people struggling.
“What other health concern do we have where the message is here’s a few things we can offer you to get well, but we’re not quite ready to put the evidence based therapy out there so we’re going to talk about it. And while we talk about it, you can be on a wait-list,” she says. “To me, that is criminal.”
Echoing Howard’s words in his opening statement, Manak explained that most police in B.C. don’t charge people with personal possession but rather refer them to harm reduction services and supports.
“But even with the defacto of decriminalization of personal possession happening in so many communities across this province, we still have the highest number of overdoses in Canada,” he says. “What we’re doing isn’t enough and we need to do more.”
Howard, like many others in attendance, couldn’t agree more.
“This is about people’s lives. This is about every person we’ve lost who was someone’s loved one, someone’s mother, someone’s father — my son — it’s time to get educated, lose those old outdated judgments and recognize this is a national emergency.”
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