British Columbia

Advocates seek more help to stem rise in overdose deaths

Reducing stigma and ensuring a safe drug supply are key considerations, advocates say.

Reducing stigma and ensuring safe drug supply are key considerations

A poster in downtown Vancouver warns of the dangers of fentanyl. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Two advocates are calling for change in light of recent B.C. overdose numbers showing a near-record level of deaths in B.C.

The numbers, released by the B.C. Coroners Service last week, revealed that 161 people died from drug overdoses in March, a 58 per cent increase from the month before. So far this year, there have been 391 deaths across B.C.

The vast majority of the deaths — more than 90 per cent — occurred indoors. No one died from an overdose at a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site.

Users hide their habit

Helen Jennens of Kelowna, B.C., lost two sons to opioid overdoses.

Now an advocate with Moms Stop the Harm, Jennens says the biggest issue is a lot of drug users hide their habit and use alone, which means they can't seek help when they overdose.

"They're not going to safe injection sites," she said. "If they do have naloxone, they're certainly not able to administer it to themselves during an overdose.

"It just tells me that we're not reaching the demographic of users that are dying."

Jennens' group was part of a Mother's Day campaign to fight the stigma surrounding drug addiction.

Safe drug supply is key

Sarah Blyth, founder of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver — and a candidate in the city's upcoming civic election — agrees with Jennens that not enough is being done to prevent people overdosing in their homes.

"We save people every day [at our overdose prevention site], which is a really good thing, but ... it's really not enough," said Blyth, who sees hundreds of people at her overdose prevention site every day.

Blyth says an important way to lessen the crisis is to ensure access to a safe drug supply. She says when a bad batch of drugs comes into a neighbourhood, there are a rash of overdoses and deaths.

"[The drug supply] is so toxic. It's a desperate situation," she said. "The drug supply that doesn't just have fentanyl in it but [it has] things that hurt people's livers, things that cause long-term heart damage and lung damage."

Blyth said increasing the capacity and presence of overdose prevention sites and giving people access to safe medication can help.

"As long as we treat them as criminals instead of people with medical issues, they're going to stay in hiding," Jennens said.

Listen to the interview with Helen Jennens and Sarah Blyth:

With files from The Early Edition