British Columbia·Analysis

B.C.'s overdose crisis may be 'new normal,' no matter what politicians say

The public's attention may not be as focused on fentanyl these days, but the statistics continue to be staggering.

'I'm really worried we're running out of ideas on how to respond to this,' says journalist

A mural warning of the dangers of fentanyl covers alley walls on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in January 2017. Overdose deaths went up 81 per cent in the subsequent seven months compared to the first seven months of 2016. (Pete Scobie/CBC)

At the end of every Union of B.C. Municipalities conference, it's tradition that the premier makes an address — and usually makes one big-ticket policy announcement.

Christy Clark announced a labour agreement with the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union one year. Gordon Campbell announced the end of tolls on the Coquihalla at another.

This year's conference saw plenty of panels and resolutions on marijuana legalization, housing affordability, and recovery from the wildfires that wreaked havoc to the Interior. 

And yet, John Horgan used his speech to announce new programs to combat the overdose crisis: $31.1 million over three years, for innovation funds and addiction clinics and naloxone kits and much more. 

It wasn't new money, per se — it came out of the $322 million announced in a September budget update.

But it sent a statement that the government wasn't done putting public attention on the deadliest drug crisis in B.C.'s history. 

"This is not something that should be done quietly in the corner," said the premier. "It should be open, it should be loud, in rooms like this, on television screens, on computers right across B.C."

Horgan was talking about public awareness campaigns initiated by public officials. But among the general public, it's an open question whether there is fentanyl fatigue. 

More deaths, but not more attention

British Columbia has been in a public health emergency since April 14, 2016.

At the time, the government said it was implemented to "help prevent future overdoses and deaths by better targeting outreach, bad drug warnings, awareness campaigns and distribution of naloxone training and kits."

Since that time, there have been more targeted outreach, more awareness campaigns, and especially more distribution of naloxone kits — allowing regular citizens to administer the medication that quickly blocks the effects of overdoses.

This year alone, over 26,376 kits have been distributed at 588 sites across the province, health officials said.

And yet, from January to July this year, 876 people died of an overdose in British Columbia.

That's up 81 per cent from the first seven months of 2016. But it's hard to argue public attention on the crisis has risen by the same amount.

"I worry with where we're at ... is a point where people are starting, not necessarily to lose interest, but to throw up their hands, simply because we're running out of new ideas for our response," says Travis Lupick, a journalist with the Georgia Straight.

Lupick has arguably reported on the current overdose crisis from the frontlines more than anyone in Vancouver, and has a book coming out in November that looks at the city's drug crisis in the 1990s, hoping lessons can be drawn from the the community's response then.   

He's concerned that today — even after 36,000 calls to 911 for overdose/posioning since the beginning of 2016 — a certain passivity towards fentanyl is starting to set in. 

"Despite pretty serious significant action, people are beginning to accept this might be the new normal, this might be where it's at." 

'Social and political crisis'

There was only one panel on the overdose crisis at this year's UBCM, but politicians who attended were certainly engaged, with many responding to simple questions with minute-long monologues about how the situation must improve.

"At a meeting of politicians and bureaucrats, I expected specific questions: how do I implement this program? What sort of resources are required?" said Lupick. 

"Instead, there were politicians just taking the microphone and expressing frustration similar to how you see activists and community members react on the Downtown Eastside ... I'm really worried we're running out of ideas on how to respond to this, and politicians are feeling that and beginning to feel helpless."

The panel ended with Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, declaring four times in a 12-minute speech that B.C.'s overdose crisis would "not become the new normal."

"I know this is the most urgent task in front of my ministry," Darcy said, while outlining a number of new actions her government had taken. 

Whether that will have a tangible impact on the number of lives lost will take months to determine.