During the first six months of 2020, more than 700 people have died from a drug overdose across the province. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

Victoria advocates call for decriminalization of illicit drugs amid record number of overdoses

‘If the numbers were reversed … there would be outrage’

Devastating and unacceptable are among the words being used to describe the latest number of overdose deaths in the province.

In June, nearly six people died of an overdose every day across the province, on average, marking the highest number of illicit drug overdoses for a second straight month. June saw 175 people die, while 170 died in May.

In the first six months of 2020, the province had 728 people die from drug overdoses compared to the 543 during the same period last year.

“If the numbers were reversed, and we lost 175 people to COVID in June there would be outrage,” says Corey Ranger, a street nurse who works with vulnerable populations in Victoria.

READ ALSO: Advocates call safe drug supply a victory but worry about logistics in pandemic

“It’s devastating and it’s unacceptable that month after month we sit here and act surprised when hundreds of British Columbians are dying from a preventable cause. It’s frustrating to see the lack of urgency when compared to the COVID crisis, which the impact pales in comparison,” says Ranger.

On March 26, the province introduced new clinical guidelines after the federal government announced a number of exemptions that would be made under the Controlled Substances Act. The changes would allow doctors, nurses and pharmacists to prescribe a safe supply of medication to people dealing with substance use disorder in support of social distancing in the face of two public health emergencies.

Ranger says that for the most part the hotels being used to provide shelter for members of the homeless community in Victoria have been set up well with witness injection and inhalation services provided, but he worries for the people not connected to a care provider, especially when it comes to getting a prescription for safe supply.

“The big issue lies in the fact that the less connected you are to a care provider, the less access you have to a prescriber and a team to support you, the more at risk you are. It’s the folks who are continuing to be left unsheltered and it’s the folks who maybe don’t have access to safe supply.”

READ ALSO: Nearly 6 people died from overdoses each day in June as B.C. sees continued spike

Ranger says a lot of people who are trying to access safe supply are being “held hostage by their prescriber” if that doctor doesn’t believe in safe supply. He says there’s still a concern among prescribers that having access to safe supply could actually increase the risk of overdose.

Fred Cameron, who works with SOLID Outreach, calls the current situation the “perfect storm.” At the beginning of the pandemic, he says there was a lot of talk about the drug supply drying up, which would have caused a different kind of crisis altogether.

“People would have gotten dope sick, we would see a different variety of mental illness that we haven’t dealt with as people ran out,” he says. “But what happened, in reality, was, not only did [the drugs] continue to come in, but the dope got stronger and stayed the same price.”

Now the issue is consistency, says Cameron, who has tested drugs that ranged from seven to 55 per cent fentanyl over a two-week period.

READ ALSO: Safe consumption plays critical part in Victoria’s temporary homeless shelters

Both Ranger and Cameron agree that while safe supply is a step in the right direction, it’s not the answer.

“We’re not providing people’s drug of choice,” says Ranger. “People have incredibly high tolerances from using fentanyl on the streets and the doses aren’t matching up with what they usually use.”

Both want to see illicit drugs decriminalized in Canada, something Jenny Howard has been advocating for since her son, Robby, died at 24. Howard, who is part of Moms Stop the Harm and runs a bereavement group, says that when meetings returned to in-person the response was “overwhelming.”

“For those of us that are continuing to grieve, seeing these stats come out every month – it’s heartbreaking,” she says. “Because we know what that phone call means. We’ve experienced it and lived it and it’s just tragic that we continue to not see an immediate response to this catastrophe.”

A rally is set for July 31 outside the Ministry of Health to call for the decriminalization of illicit drugs. For more information visit momsstoptheharm.com.


 

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