British Columbia·Video

More than 7,000 lives lost to toxic drugs in 5 years — and this B.C. health crisis is only getting worse

As B.C. marks five years since declaring a public health emergency due to opioid deaths, the provincial government has announced it will be making its request official in Ottawa to become the first province in the country to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

5 people are dying of an overdose every day in B.C., 5 years after a public health emergency was declared

A group called Moms Stop the Harm walks through the Downtown Eastside to mark the five-year anniversary of B.C.'s overdose crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As B.C. marks five years since declaring a public health emergency due to opioid deaths, the provincial government has announced it will be making its request official in Ottawa to become the first province in the country to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said Wednesday that the province will formally seek a provincewide exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to eliminate criminal penalties for people who possess a small amount of drugs for personal use.

"People who use drugs are in a health crisis and they should not face criminal penalties," said Malcolmson. "Drug laws and enforcing them has had a punishing effect on people, driving them to use alone and putting their lives in serious jeopardy."

Overdose deaths projected to rise

An average of five people are dying of an overdose each day in the province, according to the BC Coroners Service. 

So far, 2021 is shaping up to be worse than 2020, which was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths with 1,716 lives lost. 

"Every life lost is a policy failure not allowing us to implement strategies to help people and remove them from the illicit drug supply," said Guy Felicella, an adviser with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use who struggled with homelessness and addiction for decades. 

After nearly dying in 2013 of a drug overdose, Felicella, who had been in and out of jail throughout much of his life, sought treatment. Now, he uses his experiences to help end the stigma and push for health policies. 

Guy Felicella struggled with homelessness and addiction for decades in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He now uses his experiences to mentor others in a similar situation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"We're treating it likes it's a criminal justice issue," he said. "We're punishing people for using drugs. They're being arrested, thrown into jail. And being thrown into that cycle in itself is so hard to get out of in my own personal experience."

"Safe supply is the most urgent needed response to the illicit drug supply right now," he added. 

B.C. first proposed an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in February.

Felicella looks at an old photo of himself from the days when he was in and out of jail and battling addiction. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Decriminalization would see the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use changed from a criminal offence, which might involve jail time, to an administrative one, likely involving fines. Manufacturing or trafficking illicit drugs, however, would remain illegal.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Wednesday she is "very, very pleased" the province has begun work on its application and hopes the federal government will respond quickly, as it has shown it can with the parallel COVID-19 health crisis.

"Collectively, we need to come together and realize this is not just a B.C. problem. This is a problem that we need to put enough effort into as we are doing for the pandemic, and federal leadership is an important part of that," she said.

Felicella with his family in Surrey, B.C. He is now a peer clinical adviser with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. (Chris Corday/CBC)

New overdose prevention funding announced

Malcolmson also announced Wednesday the province will spend $45 million over the next three years to expand overdose prevention services like supervised consumption sites, naloxone supply and integrated response teams.

The minister said the money, which is part of this 2021-2022 budget, will be spread out in each of the province's five health authorities.

Moms Stop the Harm walk down Vancouver's Hastings Street on Tuesday to mark the five-year anniversary of B.C.'s overdose crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The BC Coroners Service said 7,072 people have died of an overdose from January 2016 to the end of February 2021. Then-provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared the emergency on April 14, 2016.

Corrine Woods lost her 22-year-old son, Tony, to opioid poisoning in January 2018.

"We know that drug addiction is a health issue, [but] when we looked for help for our son in Prince George [in 2015 and 2016] , there was no place for us to turn to." 

Woods, a member of Moms Stop the Harm, says when her son looked for help from doctors he was told to come back when he was sober. 

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks Wednesday about the 'staggering and devastating' losses the province has seen since the opioid crisis was declared a provincial health emergency in 2016. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

'These deaths are preventable'

"They're still being told they have bad behaviour," Woods said.

"I think there is still some amount of the population that thinks that mental health and substance abuse doesn't impact their family. This can affect anyone." 

"These deaths are preventable," said Felicella. 

Sherene Shuster lost her son Jordan to an overdose — though she prefers not to call it that.

"He was given pure poison without him knowing. I like to say, it's not a drug overdose ... my son was poisoned," she said.

Corrine Woods with a sign filled with photos of her son Tony, who died of an overdose in 2018. ( Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Shuster said her son's autopsy revealed he had smoked pure fentanyl, enough to kill an elephant.

"If my son had used heroin the day he died he would be alive and so would so many others ... The drugs on the street, people don't have a chance."

Shuster marched with hundreds of others through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Wednesday, calling on the government to implement safe supply and provide solutions to the overdose crisis.

The latest data showed a total of 329 people died in the first two months of 2021.

That's more than double the deaths recorded in the same time period last year, when B.C. recorded a combined 156 deaths for January and February 2020.

Watch | Marchers fill the streets of the Downtown Eastside asking for more help to stem the loss of life:

Hundreds march in Vancouver, calling on government to provide solutions to the overdose crisis

CBC News BC

1 month ago
0:52
The march in the Downtown Eastside coincides with the five year anniversary of B.C.'s opioid crisis being declared a public health emergency. 0:52

Physically distanced vigils and protests to honour loved ones lost to the toxic drug supply are happening around B.C. on Wednesday, including in cities such as Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops in the Interior and Powell River on the Sunshine Coast.

With files from Rhianna Schmunk

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