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

In a letter to Fraser Health board chair Jim Sinclair and president and CEO Dr. Victoria Lee Jan. 28, Delta Mayor George Harvie pitched the City of Delta become the lease holder of the Harold and Veronica Savage Centre for Supportive Care building after it is vacated by the Delta Hospice Society. (The Canadian Press photo)
Delta Hospice Society must vacate premises by March 29: Fraser Health

The health authority served the society a notice of breach of lease on Feb. 25

RCMP are looking for “an unknown man who wrapped his arms around” a female youth in Clayton Feb. 26. (Black Press file photo)
Youth assaulted by unknown man in Cloverdale

Mounties looking for ‘tall and thin’ Caucasian man in his 40’s with short dark brown hair

Framed photos of Travis Selje and other items fill the top of a dresser in his bedroom. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
Crown says defence case epilepsy caused fatal Surrey crash fails on balance of probabilities

‘She very clearly had some form of control over that vehicle,’ Crown argues

Alex Browne photo The felling of two mature Douglas Fir ‘eagle trees’ on Oxford Street, just south of Prospect Avenue, in June of 2019, prompted a review of tree management bylaws and policies now before White Rock council. The trees were felled on instructions from City of White Rock staff, who said the work was necessary because they had become hazardous. (File photo)
City of White Rock mulls ‘tree protection’ bylaw

More stringent measures needed to protect canopy – councillor

teeaser
Surrey TEDx talks move online with ‘fast-paced’ event that’s free to watch March 27

Last year’s TEDxBearCreekPark attracted 900 spectators to Bell theatre

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

Passengers aboard Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, 1914 - Library and Archives Canada image
Abbotsford council is asked to rename street in memory of Komagata Maru victims

Most of 376 the passengers aboard ship were denied entry into Canada in 1914

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Then-Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson looks on as MLA Shirley Bond answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. Liberal party to choose next leader in February 2022

Candidates have until Nov. 30 to declare whether they are running

After nearly 10 months of investigations, Mounties have made an arrest in the tripping of an elderly woman in Burnaby this past April. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Mounties charge suspect for tripping elderly woman near Metrotown in April

32-year-old Hayun Song is accused of causing bodily harm to an 84-year-old using her walker

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives to view the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Death threats mount against Dr. Bonnie Henry, sparking condemnation from Horgan, Dix

Henry has become a staple on televisions in homes across British Columbia since January 2020

Most Read