British Columbia

Fentanyl overdose epidemic spurs call for safe injection sites across B.C.

A Victoria-based advocacy group is calling for health officials to move beyond counting overdoses and expand access to supervised drug use services to reduce deaths.

Group advocating supervised consumption facilities

Six-hundred crosses were planted on Victoria's Harris Green to represent predicted numbers of overdose deaths this year (Megan Thomas/CBC)

A Victoria-based advocacy group is calling for health officials to move beyond monitoring overdoses and start reducing them by expanding access to supervised drug use services.

To make its point, on Wednesday morning the group, called Yes2SCS (Yes to Supervised Consumption Services), planted 600 white crosses on the Harris Green, next to a busy commuter route into Victoria's downtown. 

The crosses were erected, according to Yes2SCS spokesman Mark Willson, "to represent the amount of folks we believe could be lost in the coming year, according to the provincial health officer."

Katie Lacroix of the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID) says while overdose deaths get attention, dozens more users in Victoria are experiencing non-fatal overdoses. (Katie Lacroix)

Willson said a letter was also sent Wednesday to B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake and regional health authorities, urging the immediate creation of supervised injection sites in communities across the province.

Currently, Vancouver's Insite and the Dr. Peter Centre are the only supervised injection sites approved in Canada.

The chair of Victoria's Society of Living Illicit Drug Users, Katie Lacroix, said there is "a lot of fear" among users in Victoria about overdoses — which caused as many deaths in the first four months of 2016 as in all of 2015.

"People may be overdosing but not dying; they're having lack of oxygen to the brain," Lacroix said in an interview with On The Island's Gregor Craigie. "There are long term physical and psychological effects of that."

Safe place needed

  "People are trying to use together and spreading that message, but with the increase in    fentanyl, people just never know what's going to happen when they're using," she said. 

"People need to have a safe place they can use so they're not scared and using behind dumpsters."

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall says he supports expanding supervised injection services. (CBC)

British Columbia's provincial health officer says he supports expansion of safe injection services under the public health emergency he declared in April.

Dr. Perry Kendall said heath authorities and local governments including Victoria and Nanaimo are developing plans to put a supervised consumption room into an existing health care facility.

However, he said, getting formal federal approval for such a facility is extremely difficult without the repeal of the Respect for Communities Act (Bill C-2) enacted by the federal Conservative government in 2015. 

Anti-overdose drug recommended for shelters

As an alternative, Dr. Kendall said, "if you have enough naloxone kits in a shelter or subsidized housing where you knew you had an issue with overdoses, you could be providing, as it were, a very low barrier supervised consumption site."

"If you're injecting with somebody who does have a naloxone kit, then they are in some respects just monitoring your health and if they need to they can deliver the naloxone," Kendall said. "So that's a strategy that we're pursuing as well."

With files from On The Island and Megan Thomas.

To hear the interviews with Mark Willson of Yes to Supervised Consumption Services (Yes2SCS) and Katie Lacroix of the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID), click the audio labelled: Group plants 600 crosses to push for overdose prevention measures

To hear the interviews with Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia's Provincial Health Officer,  click the audio labelled: Province's top doctor says emergency measures could include safe injection sites