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‘Death penalty situation’: 6 years ago, B.C. declared toxic drug poisonings a health emergency

Drugs users, advocacy groups demanding immediate safe supply, decriminalization
A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. April 14, 2022 marks six years since B.C. declared a public health emergency around the opioid crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

More than 9,400 British Columbians have been lost to toxic illicit drugs since 2016, when the then-provincial health officer called a public health emergency.

It marked the first official health crisis to be declared in B.C.’s history, which would “allow medical health officers throughout the province to collect more robust, real-time information on overdoses in order to identify immediately where risks are arising and take proactive action to warn and protect people who use drugs,” read a news release from the government at the time.

Flash-forward to February of this year, and B.C. has seen 17 consecutive months of more than 150 deaths due to toxic drug poisonings, following two years of a pandemic that forced many users to take drugs indoors and alone while allowing for a more toxic supply to wreak havoc on all corners of the province.

The provincewide death rate in 2022 now stands at 43.5 per 100,000 residents.

“Canadian drug policy has created a death penalty situation where people who use drugs are now on death row,” Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users board member Dave Hamm said at a press conference Thursday (April 14).

He was among a large number of speakers from drug user groups across the province who marked the six-year anniversary by together distributing 17 grams of safe, tested heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to people who use drugs.

READ ALSO: Lack of safe supply and evidence-based care at the core of B.C. drug deaths: report

They are demanding all levels of government to immediately fund a safe supply and decriminalize both compassion clubs from distributing drugs and people from possessing them.

“The failed war on drugs has really just equated to a war on people who are poor, traumatized and oppressed,” Charlene Burmeister, founder of the Coalition of Substance Users of the North, said.

The drugs they use should be treated no differently than alcohol, tobacco or cannabis, she added. It is the illegality of the drugs that results in an unpredictable, poisonous supply.

For those who are still alive today, a lack of government action and red tape preventing them from taking their own steps has meant watching countless of their friends, family members and peers die. Burmeister said she’s scared every time she picks up the phone it will be to hear that another person has been lost to a preventable crisis.

In her own statement Thursday, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe also pointed to a need for safe supply.

“On this day of tremendous sadness, we know that more must be done and that a better future is possible. The deaths of more than 9,400 people over the past six years is a clear indication that new and innovative programs and options for people who use drugs are urgently needed, and that a health and wellness approach must replace the harmful, stigmatizing practices of the past,” Lapointe said.

“Much greater access to safer supply across the province is critical to preventing future loss of life. This, alongside decriminalization of possession for personal use, greater access to evidence-based treatment and care, and a continuum of services that meets people where they are, will support those at risk and provide a path out of this crisis.”

B.C. is currently awaiting word from Health Canada on whether it will allow a drug possession exemption in the province. Advocates have raised concerns that the allowable amount being considered is far too low.

“We are leading nationally on prescribed safe supply and decriminalization of people who use drugs,” a joint statement by Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reads.

An all-party Select Standing Committee on Health was put in place earlier this month at the B.C. Legislature, with the intention of cross-party collaboration on harm reduction, overdose prevention and treatment.

“… The toxic drug crisis is not - and should not - be a partisan issue.”

READ ALSO: B.C advocates push back as Health Canada mulls lower-than-requested legal drug possession

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