British Columbia is experiencing the worst opioid overdose crisis in its history.
By October 31st, the BC Coroners Service reported that 1208 people had died from overdose: higher than the next three causes of unnatural deaths combined—suicides, motor vehicle incidents and homicides. The numbers for November and December will be released early next year and 2017 will see the highest number ever of what the BC Coroner’s Service calls illicit drug overdose deaths.
More accurately, this could be described as a contamination of the illicit drug supply as an overwhelming majority of the deaths are linked to fentanyl. This synthetic opioid was detected in 83% of the overdose deaths to October 31 compared to 68% for all of 2016.
The number of people that died from overdose in the first nine months of 2017 was higher than the next three causes of unnatural deaths combined.
In April 2016, BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency because of this crisis, and in September a small group of community activists opened what was at the time an unsanctioned pop-up overdose prevention site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Since then, the provincial ministry of health has sanctioned such sites throughout the province where volunteers, equipped with overdose-reversing naloxone, provide a safe injection site for their community. These sites, usually housed in a tent or trailer, are not federal-government approved supervised injection sites like Insite in the Downtown Eastside or a small facility located in Vancouver’s Dr. Peter Centre.
SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement collaborated with local filmmaker Eric Sanderson to produce a short documentary exploring the frontline relief efforts made by members of the Overdose Prevention Society and residents of the Downtown Eastside.
“People in this neighbourhood are giving their time, giving their emotion, giving their own well-being to keep their friends alive,” Overdose Prevention Site coordinator Lana Fox says in the video.
Filmmaker Sanderson explained why he undertook the project.
“I was filming another project with a participatory theatre group from the former Drug Users Resource Centre and one of the performers broke down during the Q&A afterwards and basically said, ‘All my friends are dead’. I don’t think most of us are equipped to understand what that’s like and I suspect that’s part of the reason that the government thinks its responses are adequate. They’re moving fast in bureaucratic terms, but it’s still glacial compared to the urgency of the crisis.”
In response to the growing crisis, earlier this year SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement joined with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, SNAP (Stop Now and Plan) and Pivot Legal Society to present the panel discussion Heroin Assisted Treatment: Saving lives during the overdose death crisis, which can be viewed here.
They’re moving fast in bureaucratic terms, but it’s still glacial compared to the urgency of the crisis.
During the event Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, reminded the audience that many government timelines are “mind-numbingly slow” given that we’re dealing with a public health emergency.
“Six months is fast in the legal community … six minutes is a long time if you’re experiencing an overdose,” he said.
The new provincial government created a stand-alone Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. Led by Minister Judy Darcy, there are high expectations of far-reaching changes in 2018 to turn the tide on this devastating crisis that is impacting thousands of British Columbians.