British Columbia

Calls for more addiction treatment in B.C. rise along with spike in drug overdose deaths

B.C. Liberals and rehab experts want the province to immediately begin funding more beds for treatment and recovery.

B.C. Liberals and rehab experts want the province to fund more beds for treatment and recovery

Street drugs containing fentanyl — along with conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — are blamed for the increase in illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. this summer. (U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah/The Associated Press)

After another month of near-record-high overdose numbers, the B.C. Liberals say their patience with the current government's approach to the opioid crisis has run thin. 

Jane Thornthwaite, B.C.'s Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, said the province has focused too heavily on harm reduction measures and not enough on rehabilitation programs for substance users. 

"We've done really well on harm reduction," the MLA for North Vancouver-Seymour told listeners of CBC's On the Island earlier this week.  "But let's not just stop there." 

When her staff recently called nine random treatment facilities in B.C., she said they discovered more than 120 beds were empty, despite long wait lists for access to treatment. 

David Keeler holds up the hydromorphone he has been taking every morning since March after provincial prescribing guidelines were issued around prescribing substances including opioids, cannabis and alcohol to those with addiction. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The province needs to immediately begin funding more detox, treatment and recovery beds, said Thornwaite. "So we actually get to the root of the addiction as opposed to just putting a Band-Aid on it."

In July, B.C. nearly matched its monthly record for deadly illicit drug overdoses with 175 deaths. According to the BC Coroners Service, the month before saw 177 fatalities, which surpassed the previous high of 174 deaths in May. 

Before May, the worst month on record was December 2016 when 161 lives were lost.

Experts have attributed the recent spike, in part, to an increase in the toxicity of street drugs as COVID-19 disrupted international supply chains and created even more reliance on potentially deadly fentanyl.

"A broken system"

In March, the province expanded access to a safe supply of drugs — including the painkiller hydromorphone as a substitute for opioids — to users at risk of developing a COVID-19 infection, overdosing or going through withdrawal. 

But many substance users and advocates, including Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) and the Vancouver Network of Drug Users (VANDU), say the program does not go nearly far enough, and the recent rise in deaths proves it.

A hand holding a needle and syringe is about to do drugs.
The B.C. Liberals and some rehabilitation experts are urging the provincial government to fund beds to reduce waitlists for detox, treatment and recovery support. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

They want a supply of pharmaceutical-grade heroin provided to those who need it and the decriminalization of drug possesion for personal use, a proposal supported by B.C.'s top doctor, Bonnie Henry. 

"At best, we have a broken system," said Carson McPherson, managing director of Cedars at Cobble Hill and Acorn Recovery on Vancouver Island.

"Someone who is not alive can't find recovery," he said. "But just keeping someone alive, that's saving a life, it's not providing life."

B.C.'s Ministry for Mental Health and Addictions defended the government's record in an email to CBC news, saying it committed more than $300 million over five years for treatment and recovery services in 2017.

Parents who have lost children to drug overdoses gather beside Mr. PG in Prince George, B.C., for the city's first ever official declaration of Overdose Awareness Week on Aug. 24, 2020. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

In recent months, the ministry said it has earmarked tens of millions of dollars more, including funding as many as 213 new treatment beds and doubling the amount of beds available to youth. 

Gaps in support services

Evan James, a former user who now works at an addiction support centre in Victoria, has witnessed the shortcomings of B.C.'s public treatment program firsthand. 

He said "huge" waiting periods between support services like detox and treatment put drug users at higher risk of dying.

"They'll go into detox and have a huge wait before they can get into a treatment or sober living facility," explained James, the son of B.C. Finance Minister Carol James.

"So they have to go back to the environment they were in before, which is rife with addiction and substances. At that point, their tolerance is so low that they're hugely at risk for overdose."

In the past, those in treatment may have been able to survive a relapse. Now that B.C.'s drug supply is so heavily tainted with fentanyl  a slip is significantly deadlier, said James, a team lead at the Umbrella Society.

He said he remembers when staff at his organization would meet, debrief and grieve together after a client passed away. Now so many people are dying, they don't get the chance to anymore.

"It's brutal. I don't know how else to put it," he said. 

The most heartbreaking cases for James are when a person wants to stop using, but dies waiting for the help they need. 

"It's criminal to me that someone's wanting to make changes, and they're dying before they get the opportunity to get well."

Since the beginning of 2016, the year the province declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency, at least 5,918 people have died from overdoses in the province.

With files from Rhianna Schmunk and Briar Stewart