On April 14, 2016, the B.C. Government declared a public health emergency in response to opioid overdose deaths across the Province. Five years later, the emergency response is still active.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 2020 was the deadliest year on record in terms of illicit drug overdoses. 1,716 lives were lost to toxic street drugs across B.C., with 18 deaths recorded in the East Kootenay.
Provincially, this represents a 74% increase from 2019, which saw 984 deaths from overdose. The number equates to about 4.7 deaths per day, compared to 2.7 per day in 2019.
To honour those who have died from an overdose and bring awareness to the issue, protesters will gather at ANKORS in Cranbrook and march to City Hall on Wednesday, April 14th at 11 a.m. Moms Stop the Harm will have a petition available at the ANKORS building for the public to sign.
Patrick Evans, East Kootenay Network of People who Use Drugs (EKNPUD) project coordinator said the region’s drug supply has its own unique challenges.
“There’s a lot of drugs here, but because we have that geographical distance, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the drug supply. In these rural communities, supply isn’t readily available,” explained Evans. “If you’re going to buy illicit drugs, there’s a certain amount of risk involved with that. That used to look like kids getting ripped off, but now it’s looking like kids dying. We had an MDMA sample that came through a couple of months ago, some high school kid bought it and it was more than half fentanyl. That’s terrifying because at that concentration it is deadly, even to a seasoned opioid user.”
EKNPUD is seeking an exemption of Section 56.1 to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would allow them to seek a safer drug supply easier.
“We want to have a compassion model for people who use drugs. We want to be able to obtain, test, and confirm that we have drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin that do not have contaminates in them,” said Evans. “We want to be able to supply these drugs to people who use drugs, who are pre-screened members of our network, who are already using drugs anyway. They just want to have the same reliability that everyone else has when they go to buy a pack of Du Mauriers (cigarettes) or a case of Budweiser.”
In Cranbrook and Kimberley, ANKORS is offering its services to the public with drug checking, naloxone training, peer support and drop-in services. The services are aimed at preventing overdose, connecting users with resources, and education.
Alexis Hekker, Harm Reduction and Wellness Coordinator with ANKORS said overdose prevention kits have been in high demand.
“We order hundreds of naloxone kits every other month and they’re gone. We have so many of those kits going out and each one has three doses of naloxone in it. A lot of people are taking multiple kits because with how the drug supply is, one kit isn’t bringing someone back any more,” said Hekker.
ANKORS advocates for naloxone kits to be easily accessible anywhere in the community. The kits are offered for free, along with training on how to properly administer them.
“Overdoses are happening everywhere, it’s not isolated to one demographic, it’s not isolated to one location. We’re really pushing for as many people in the community to carry a kit as possible, even if they’re not 100% comfortable or confident in their ability to use it,” said Hekker.
Within the year, a homeless shelter will be added to Cranbrook, which will include an overdose prevention site, it will not be operated by ANKORS, however, and will be available only to those using the shelter.
Jessica Lamb, peer lead development coordinator with ANKORS and peer coordinator with EKNPUD, said the community needs stronger overdose prevention infrastructure.
“A dead person can’t recover. If the goal is to get better health care for people who use drugs, we have to start somewhere. I believe the overdose prevention sites are that first place where we can help people,” said Lamb.
Evans said EKNPUD is looking to set up a peer-run overdose prevention site to help out drug users.
“We were running this out of my vehicle, and we had to stop offering episodic overdose prevention because it put us at too much risk. It was just too much for us to carry on our own,” explained Evans. “A safe consumption site, as much as I’d love to see one in Cranbrook, is probably close to a million dollars or three-quarters of a million dollars of funding we would need annually to set up and run the site. These peer-run sites are a fraction of the cost and they’re just as effective.”
EKNPUD has set up a GoFundMe to raise money to start its overdose prevention site in Cranbrook.
More: B.C. moves to decriminalize drug possession and further fund overdose prevention (April 14, 2021)