British Columbia

Overdose awareness day shines light on more than 7,700 B.C. lives lost — and what's still at stake

Advocates have long been calling for access to a safer drug supply for users in B.C. as more and more toxic drugs flood the streets. Last year was the deadliest on record in the province, with more than 1,700 people fatally overdosing.

Advocates highlight urgent need for safer supply as B.C. surpasses 1,000 deaths in 2021

Vancouver's Deb Bailey holds an image of her daughter, Ola, who died of a fentanyl overdose at 21 years old. Ola and the more than 7,760 British Columbians who have died during B.C.'s overdose crisis are being remembered Tuesday on International Overdose Awareness Day. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

In 2015, Vancouver mom Deb Bailey spent Christmas Eve in the morgue.

It's where she identified the body of her 21-year-old daughter, Ola, who had left home to go holiday shopping just two days earlier.

"There she was, laying there in the clothes she had left in, looking like she was sleeping — and you're shattered, really," Bailey recalled.

Ola is among the more than 7,760 British Columbians who have died from illicit drugs during B.C.'s overdose crisis, which was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Their lives are being remembered for International Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday. The annual campaign, which originated in Australia in 2001, aims to break the stigma surrounding drugs and addiction while raising awareness about overdose prevention and drug policy.

In Vancouver, ceremonies will include a memorial march through the city's Downtown Eastside. Organizers will distribute lab-tested drugs to registered users in the community.

Vancouver city Coun. Jean Swanson hands out free drugs including meth, heroin and cocaine to people outside the Vancouver Police Department offices in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood on July 14, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

159 more deaths in June

The province on Tuesday confirmed that more than 1,000 people died of an illicit drug overdose between January and June, the highest rate ever recorded in the first six months of a calendar year. 

It said at least 159 people died in June, bringing the annual toll so far to 1,011. June was the ninth consecutive month in B.C. in which more than 150 people died as a result of an illicit drug overdose.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said during a news conference Tuesday that drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for people between 19 and 39 years of age. The majority of those who have died are men, and were alone at the time of death.

The B.C. Coroners Service said there was a greater number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations between April and June. A statement said 14 per cent of drug samples tested in those months met the threshold, compared to eight per cent in 2019.

From 2018 to 2020, fentanyl was present in 87 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths.

Carfentanil, a more potent analogue of fentanyl, has been detected in 95 deaths in 2021, which is already higher than the 65 deaths in which the drug was identified last year.

Cocaine, methamphetamine and amphetamines, other opioids and alcohol have also been detected in drug toxicity deaths.

Brian Twaites, advanced life support paramedic specialist with Emergency Health Services, also spoke at Tuesday's news conference. He said paramedics used to respond to about 12,000 overdoses a year, and now those numbers are more than double. He said they respond to more than 100 overdoses each day.

Typically, paramedics administer 0.4 milligrams of Narcan to someone who has overdosed. 

"We're now having to give up to five times the regular dosing of Narcan to get these people to just breathe on their own," Twaites said.

"We know what would stop the deaths," said Bailey, who is also a member of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm.

"We have a toxic drug supply and we need to look at all the avenues we can find to keep people alive — and that would include providing people with a safe supply of drugs that are not going to kill them."

Calls for safer supply

Advocates have long been calling for access to a safer drug supply for users in B.C. as more and more toxic drugs flood the streets. Last year was the deadliest on record, with more than 1,700 people fatally overdosing.

"I don't want to see more people die needlessly," said Trey Helten, speaking from the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver.

He's the manager of the supervised consumption site, where users can also have their drugs tested by a spectrometer.

Helten said fentanyl has contaminated just about every drug on the street, while many people are often fooled into consuming an array of other harmful chemicals.

"Sometimes people will 'bunk' people on the street. They'll sell drywall dust or cement dust as fentanyl, and people will unknowingly inject that into their bodies." 

A person holding drugs.
A man waits to have a sample of drugs tested by Vancouver Coast Health workers at the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

He went on: "We need lots of different options for lots of different people, and safe supply is one of them."

Lapointe said prescribed drugs, including safe supply, are not a factor in the overdose crisis. 

"We can assure clinicians that safe supply is not creating a health and safety risk."

Though she was not in attendance for Tuesday's news conference, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Sheila Malcolmson said in an emailed statement that the government is committed to ending the overdose crisis.

"We are working hard to separate people from the poisoned drug supply and build more treatment beds and recovery options," the statement reads. 

"Our government has been creating new drug policy in Canada that will save lives by supporting access to prescribed safer supply and connecting people to health-care services, and by moving forward on decriminalization of people who use drugs. We will do everything we can to turn this drug poisoning crisis around."

In July, the province announced a prescribed safer supply policy, which would offer users substitutes to poisoned street drugs in an effort to reduce overdose deaths. The program is rolling out in phases, with provincial health authorities currently developing implementation plans.

Urgency needed, advocates say

But with deaths mounting, advocates like Bailey say time is of the essence.

July 2021 marked the highest ever number of overdoses recorded in a single month. Paramedics responded to 3,606 overdose calls across the province, according to B.C. Emergency Health Services.

Members of the group Moms Stop the Harm walk down Hastings Street in Vancouver to mark the fifth anniversary of B.C.’s overdose crisis on April 13, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Bailey says the opioid crisis should be treated with the same level of urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What did we do for the COVID crisis? We listened to our experts, our medical experts and our scientists, and we pretty much did what they said. And we are saying, 'Why can't you do the same with this epidemic?' " 

That's why she says safer supply needs to happen now.

"It's great to talk about treatment … but you can't do treatment if you're dead."

With files from Courtney Dickson and Justin McElroy