B.C. declared overdose deaths a public emergency 6 years ago. Advocates say the only change is the body count

John Hedican is disgusted.

His son Ryan’s life was cut short at age 26 when Ryan overdosed on fentanyl in 2017. At that point, the B.C. government had already declared a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis.

Now, six years since that emergency was declared, an average of six people are dying daily and a total of 9,400 lives have been lost to illicit drug toxicity in the province.

In that time, Hedican says, he has seen politicians mobilize to combat COVID, fires, and floods, and he is left asking why the same coordinated government efforts were not made to save his son and so many others.

The Hedican family before son Ryan, second from right, died of fentanyl poisoning. From left to right: Jennifer Hedican, Kyle Hedican, Megan Hedican, Ryan Hedican, John Hedican. (Submitted by John Hedican)

“It’s just appalling. We got a mass killing in our country happening and we don’t have politicians that have the spine to talk about what is needed to stop these preventable deaths,” said Hedican, speaking Thursday on CBC’s The Early Edition.

Hedican is one of countless advocates — including parents, health professionals and the B.C. Coroners’ Service — calling for a safe supply of clean drugs to be made readily available to all substance users.

People walk past a memorial by Moms Stop The Harm in Vancouver on Thursday, April 14, 2022. Six years since the province declared a public health emergency over toxic drug overdose deaths, advocates continue to call for a safe, readily available supply of clean drugs. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C. is the first province in Canada to offer prescribed safe supply. According to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, more than 12,000 people were dispensed prescribed safer supply between March 2020 and December 2021.

Last week, the first-ever paid prescription fentanyl program was launched by PHS Community Services in Vancouver. The enhanced access program began on April 7 with a single client.

But critics say the province’s safe supply program is not reaching enough British Columbians because there are not enough prescribing doctors, the drugs are not strong enough, and not all users qualify for it.

People gather at a rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver in June 2020. Since then, the B.C. government has introduced a safe supply program, but advocates say it does not go far enough. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“We wouldn’t just talk about a small percentage of chronic alcohol users and come up with an alcohol replacement or a low barrier access for alcohol. We would clean up the supply of alcohol to protect all users,” said Hedican.

Protest in provincial capital

The advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm is rallying across the province Thursday as they too try to get the safe supply program expanded.

“We’re protesting the lack of progress the government has made in these six years,” said co-founder Leslie McBain, who joined Hedican on The Early Edition. “Safe supply is the only thing that is going to slow, and eventually, hopefully, stop the deaths.”

A clean drug supply may have saved her son Jordan, 25, who died from an opioid overdose in 2014.

Jordan McBain Miller died in 2014 of an opioid overdose. He was 25. (Leslie McBain)

McBain says roughly every month, when the B.C. Coronors Service releases its latest illicit drug death overdoses, she hears the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson respond with what the province is doing to help people recover from addiction, as opposed to helping people stay alive.

“Dead people don’t recover,” said McBain.

Flags that represent the lives lost due to drug overdoses are pictured in a memorial by Moms Stop The Harm, on the sixth anniversary of the province declaring a public health emergency over toxic drug overdose deaths. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

McBain says people often ask her what has changed since April 14, 2016 when the public health emergency was declared. Her response, she says, is that the death numbers have gotten worse.

How many have to die?

Malcolmson, along with Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry released a statement marking the anniversary today. It mentions that an all-party committee was created this month so all sides of the legislative assembly can work on the issue.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had made important progress on reducing the number of deaths in our province, but the toxicity of the supply has increased faster than we’ve been able to stand up new services,” reads the statement in part. 

“We need to come together to protect British Columbians now and into the future. While we are making progress, we know there is much more to do.”

Parents grieving across the province say they know exactly what needs to be done.

Signs pictured at a Moms Stop The Harm memorial in Vancouver on Thursday, April 14, 2022. Critics say the province’s safe supply program is not reaching enough British Columbians because there are not enough prescribing doctors, the drugs are not strong enough, and not all users qualify for it. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In Prince George, parents held a vigil outside the office of local MPs to raise awareness and demand a safe supply of drugs be made available.

“Kids need to learn from their mistakes, not die from them,” said Michelle Miller, speaking Thursday on Daybreak North. 

The Prince George mom lost her son, Tanner Miller, in 2019 to fentanyl poisoning.

Michelle Miller of Prince George, B.C. lost her son, Tanner Miller, in 2019. B.C.’s chief coroner says the Northern Health region has the highest rate of illicit overdose deaths in the province. (Submitted by Michelle Miller)

Miller says the toxic drug crisis is not fuelled by addiction or drug misuse, but by a toxic drug supply.

“How many more of our sons and daughters have to die before enough is enough?”

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