Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Advocates share fear of worsening overdose crisis in 2021, want national safe supply

British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March

With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives.

Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country.

A public health emergency was declared in 2016, a year that saw 991 deaths. More than 1,500 people have died in British Columbia from illicit drug overdoses in 2020.

Ontario’s chief coroner’s office estimates 50 to 80 people per week are dying of overdoses.

British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March, allowing doctors and nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs.

Karen Ward, a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, said the concept of the program needs to be expanded across the country.

“It’s like you’re struggling to tread water in a tsunami,” she said in an interview, referring to the number of overdoses in B.C.

Experts say COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation as the supply of illicit drugs became more toxic when the border was closed and more drugs were made or altered in Canada. The pandemic has also impeded access to key harm reduction services, such as supervised consumption sites.

The federal government issued data on Wednesday showing 17,602 people have died from opioid overdoses between January 2016 and June 2020.

Between January and June of this year, 86 per cent of all opioid overdose deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario.

“It will get worse. It will, definitely. Unless we stop talking and do some very specific things,” said Ward. “Let’s do safe supply. Nothing is perfect, but let’s find ways to prescribe in your community, in your area, right away. Or it will get worse.”

Along with a national safe supply program, Ward argues decriminalization is something governments should be considering.

It would mean police wouldn’t charge someone caught with a small amount of drugs and they would not seize the substance.

She is also critical of the scope of B.C.’s safe supply program, arguing health professionals need to be more willing to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives.

“We need a variety of ways to access the health benefits that we have decided are necessary,” Ward said.

The federal government announced $9.5 million in funding for four safe supply pilot projects in Ontario in September, but advocates say that the small size of the project doesn’t do enough.

Last month, Vancouver council voted unanimously to ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was unavailable for an interview, but her office sent a statement saying it is reviewing Vancouver’s proposal.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the ongoing opioid crisis. We have lost too many Canadians to overdose and all levels of government must redouble our efforts to save lives,” she said in the statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September that he supported safe supply but maintained his stance against drug decriminalization.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, a professor at the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, said more support is needed for safe supply programs and decriminalization efforts.

“Safe supply, to me, is the only real practical thing to do,” he said in an interview.

It’s frustrating to see governments and public health agencies not put as much effort as they could into saving the lives of drug users, said Tyndall, who used to head B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control and worked to launch an opioid vending machine in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“I’m pretty pessimistic,” he said on what the next year holds for drug users. “The chance of you overdosing from street drugs are probably higher than they were five years ago … we haven’t really made any significant changes that have made people safer.”

Zoe Dodd, a co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said governments need to understand the wider impact that overdoses are having.

“If we don’t seriously address the overdose crisis, we will lose a workforce,” she said.

Along with safe supply and decriminalization, more support is needed for people who work and volunteer at overdose prevention sites.

Safe supply, combined with drug decriminalization, is needed to truly make a difference, Dodd said.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

overdose

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Port Alberni’s Caden Tremblay played with the North Island Major Bantam Silvertips during the 2019-2020 season. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
BCHL: Port Alberni’s Caden Tremblay suits up for hometown Bulldogs

North Island Silvertips’ captain hopes to play for hometown crowd

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

Barb Kalugin, chair of the Community For Kids Port Alberni Chapter, is presented with a cheque for $832 for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation from Anita Sutherland, Director of Operations and Opportunities with McLean Mill National Historic Site. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
McLean Mill Christmas event raises more than $800 for BC Children’s Hospital

Festival of Trees fundraiser went virtual due to COVID-19

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

On Aug. 26, 1947, a fire sparked in the lumber piles between Alberni Pacific Division sawmill and Alberni Plywood (located where Canal Waterfront Park is now). What resulted was a huge fire on Assembly Wharf One, where several buildings were gutted and stacks of lumber were burned. This photo is one of 24,000 contained in the Alberni Valley Museum’s digital archives, at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com. (PHOTO PN07386 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)
LOOK BACK: 1947 fire destroys Port Alberni wharf

Take a peek into the Alberni Valley’s history with the Alberni Valley Museum

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Residents of the Cowichan Valley decorated more than 55 vehicles with anti-racist slogans for a car rally in support of Cowichan Tribes on Saturday, January 24. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Dozens join anti-racism car rally and virtual panel in Cowichan Valley

Provincial ministry and BC Green caucus issue joint statement detailing concerns

Jesse Savidant, 31, is wanted by the RCMP after failing to appear in provincial court in Nanaimo in December. Police warn Savidant should be considered violent. (Photo Submitted)
Warrant out for man accused of stolen property offences across Vancouver Island

Jesse Savidant did not appear for court date in Nanaimo last month, say RCMP

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is urging visitors to stay on designated trails after a hiker became injured in an unsanctioned area last week. (Westerly file photo)
Injured hiker rescued in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. Two more cases of the COVID-19 strain first identified in South Africa have been diagnosed in British Columbia, bringing the total to three as of Jan. 16.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. now has three cases of South African COVID-19 variant, six of U.K. strain

Both variants are thought to spread faster than earlier strains

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Police discovered a makeshift nightclub in a Vancouver apartment on Jan. 23, 2021, and say it wasn’t the first time this month officers have been called to the unit over social gathering concerns. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Doorman of makeshift ‘booze-can’ in Vancouver apartment fined; police look to court order

This marks the fourth complaint about social gatherings inside the apartment in January

Most Read