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Port Alberni’s Community Action Team releases blueprint for toxic drug deaths

Document shows what actions can be taken by governments, organizations and individuals
Ron Merk, co-chair of the Port Alberni Community Action Team, presents the blueprint strategy document for responding to the toxic drug crisis. (ELENA RARDON / Alberni Valley News)

The toxic drug crisis has intensified in Port Alberni over the last eight years, with a record-breaking number of fatal toxic drug poisonings in 2023. But Port Alberni Community Action Team (CAT) co-chair Ron Merk says the numbers would be much worse without the help of frontline workers and community-led initiatives.

“Harm reduction is not a solution to the crisis,” said Merk. “Harm reduction is a way to save people’s lives until we figure out the solutions.”

The CAT put out a blueprint document last week on Feb. 20, 2024 with a number of proposed strategies to help solve the toxic drug crisis both in the Alberni Valley and throughout the province. The document comes just a couple weeks after Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni also released their strategy for responding to the crisis.

READ MORE: Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni unveils toxic drug strategy

Wahmeesh (Ken Watts), the elected Chief Councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, called these “sister” documents.

“But I think it goes much deeper than that,” said Watts. “It’s about getting into a canoe together and paddling as one. This is just another paddle to help get us going forward.”

Merk explained that Tseshaht’s work was the catalyst that started the CAT’s blueprint document. After more than a year of work and revisions, the document now presents an understanding of what the crisis is doing to the community, and what actions can be taken by government, community organizations and individual people.

“We took the work that Tseshaht gave us and we took it down to a much, much deeper level,” said Merk. “We also looked at how we could get down to the tactical things that each of us could do as we move forward.”

Merk warned that people won’t necessarily agree with everything that is included in the document.

“The strength of this is that it’s a community document,” he said. “It doesn’t represent a single voice. We’re all now understanding that this catastrophe needs a combined answer.”

According to the BC Coroner’s Service, in 2023, the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District had the third-worst death rate from toxic drugs in the province. Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death in the province for people between the ages of 10 and 59. The majority of people dying are men between the ages of 20 and 59, and most of those men die in single-family residences.

Merk says that members of the public see marginalized people living on the streets and assume that they are the problem causing the toxic drug crisis.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Merk. “They’re just showing the symptoms of the bigger problems—like poverty, homelessness, mental illness. Until we address those root causes, we’re always going to have marginalized people.”

There are two main parts to the document: section three lays out the causes and effects of the crisis, while section four proposes a number of solutions and answers. One example of a problem is a lack of Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT), for example administering methadone, in primary care settings. The document recommends that the province makes OAT certification mandatory for graduating physicians and nurse practitioners.

Merk emphasized that the document is a blueprint that can be used by people, community organizations and representatives from government to help solve the crisis. It is a living document that will evolve as new science-based information becomes available.

“It’s now out of our hands,” said Merk. “You will take it and do what you want with it.”

The blueprint can be found on the CAT’s website at or you can email the CAT at to receive a copy.

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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