Front-line workers warn that B.C.’s opioid crisis is only getting worse

TORONTO — As British Columbia marks five years since declaring the opioid crisisa public health emergency, those who’ve been on the frontlines since the beginning warn things are only getting worse.

Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, said overdose sites “are more important than ever” during the pandemic, as the drug supply is more toxic than it’s ever been.

”There’s a lot of things that make it a more critical situation than it’s ever been,” she told CTV News.

“COVID doesn’t make any of this any easier. It makes it more difficult, just because folks are struggling … worried about transmitting COVID on top of everything else.”

The overdose crisis has claimed the lives of 7,072 British Columbians since January 2016 and 6,853 B.C. residents since it was declared a public health emergency five years ago. It is longest-running such emergency in B.C.

“I extend my heartfelt condolences to all of those who have lost a beloved family member or friend as a result of the unscrupulous and profit-driven illicit drug market,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner of the BC Coroners Service, in a news release. “The tragic loss of these thousands of individuals underlines the urgent need for a substantial shift in our provincial and national response to problematic substance use.”

While thousands of people have died from the crisis, plenty more deaths could be on the way.

In late March, the BC Coroners Service released a report which found that an average of 5.5 people per day died from illicit drug toxicity in the month of February. In addition, the report found that illicit drug toxicity deaths per 100,000 people is at its worst rate since at least 1995.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how, as a province and a nation, we can mobilize and achieve incredible things together, it has also revealed a sadder truth: some dangers evoke more community concern than others,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, who served as provincial health officer when the public health emergency was first declared.

“There is a stark and dreadful contrast in how we as a society have responded to the two public health emergencies. 2021 is the year to stop temporizing and take the necessary steps to put an end to this tragedy.”

On Wednesday, the B.C. government formally requested a federal exemptionfrom Health Canada to decriminalize drug possession, which the government believes will destigmatize drug use and encourage more people to seek help. Lapointe also announcedthe province would be undertaking a new death review panel to determine the viability of providing a safer drug supply to users.

For Blyth, access to more safe supply is key to helping those most in need.

“Obviously there’s a lot of slow starts, but what we really need is a safe supply,” she said. “We do have some with my safe, but we need to really ramp those things up. We need to ramp up a lot of different things to do with safe supply.”

‘IT WAS JUST MOUTH-TO-MOUTH’

Blyth began her safe injection site back in 2016, when the facility was just a table, a few chairs, and some naloxone spray, an opioid overdose medication.

“When we first started out, it was just mouth-to-mouth, running around in alleys,” she said. “People were overdosing everywhere in our alley … and it was just crazy.”

At the time, it was Canada’s first such site and it was illegal. In the following years, governments from all levels would come to encourage using at these facilities.

“Now that we have these sites, people are coming in, they get the drugs tested, they talk to each other,” Blyth said. “I think people are a lot more cautious, but still overdoses continue to happen because the drug supply is more toxic than ever.”

The OPS has made a real difference to those in the community. It has not had a single death at its facilities in nearly five years.

In addition to offering a safe place to use, the OPS offers employment, food, shelter and clothing to those in need.

Trey Helton spent about a decade believing he would die on the streets from an overdose. He is now five years drug-free, and has been able to work his way up the ranks to become a manager at the safe injection site.

“Getting training on how to reverse overdoses — helping your friends — lowers the stigma of being a drug user, and helps build self-esteem, knowing that you’re doing something good, you’re learning something and you’re helping somebody,” Helton said.

For Helton, the keys to slowing down the opioid crisis come down to providinga safe supply program for users, and getting these users off the streets and into affordable housing.

“I would stay up for weeks, just trying to protect the possessions that I had so that they didn’t get stolen,” he said.

“Having affordable housing is pretty important for someone, where they have a safe place where they know they can go, they can lock their door, they can have their possessions safe and they’re not going to be violently assaulted or are hurt while they’re sleeping.”

One current user, who preferred to go only by “Juicy,” also said the OPS has saved her life. Juicy is now a volunteer and employee at the centre.

“It’s like everybody that uses this place loves that we aren’t like every other place,” she said. “We treat them like they’re our friends, they’re our family.”

With files from CTV News Vancouver Island and CTV News Vancouver

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