British Columbia

Spike in 'unbearable' overdose crisis renews call for safe drug supply

A dramatic wave of overdose calls across the province in recent days has some calling for better access to drugs that haven't been contaminated with substances like fentanyl.

Toxic drugs among factors blamed for high numbers of overdoses in recent days

Fentanyl and other toxic drug contaminants are flooding into Vancouver including areas like the Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The overdose crisis is something that British Columbians have lived with for at least a couple years. The death toll has been alarming, with more than 1,420 people killed by illicit drugs last year — about 80 per cent of those deaths involved fentanyl.

But with the constant state of crisis, it's easy to grow numb to the issue — that is, until a fresh statistic drives the story to the top of news once again. 

That's what happened this weekend, after B.C. Emergency Health Services reported on social media that paramedics had intervened in a staggering 130 overdoses across the province on Friday, leading to a renewed call for the legalization and prescription of illicit drugs.

Each of the patients survived, thanks to the training and quick response by first responders, but for Overdose Prevention Society executive director Sarah Blyth, those saves exist alongside the tragic deaths ravaging the community.

"It's just unbearable — it's completely unbearable," said Blyth on Monday. "It's just horrible that people are dying."

Blyth is one among a growing chorus of health officials, advocates and activists calling for the legalization and prescription of drugs like heroin.

"We don't want to be operating these overdose prevention sites," she said. "We would rather people have safe access to drugs. We would rather just be giving out something at these sites that people won't overdose [on]. They wouldn't die. They don't have to do survival sex trade."

Sarah Blyth calls the ongoing overdose crisis — which surged this week with an alarming number of overdose calls to B.C. paramedics — "unbearable." (Rafal Gerszak/Boreal Collective)

It was nearly a year ago that the B.C. Centre for Disease Control issued a report that included a recommendation to decriminalize illicit drugs.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, who took over as the provincial health officer earlier this year, has also supported decriminalization.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police was even looking into the issue this year as a possible way to curb the overdose crisis.

But the federal government isn't budging on the issue, and seems unwilling to go beyond the legalization of cannabis for the time being, as a spokesperson for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said on Monday.

Not surprised by new peak

Blyth said before she saw the news from B.C. EHS that the agency had received a record-tying number of overdose calls last week, she knew things were ramping up again. 

She said that, along with the non-fatal overdoses happening in alleys and homes near her group's overdose prevention site, she's hearing about an uptick in deaths in the community, and frequently, a toxic drug supply is to blame.

"We knew that something was going on, so it was really not surprising that [the B.C. EHS tweet] said we were peaking in the overdose crisis again," she said. "It's going on and on and obviously the crisis hasn't ended at any point."

B.C. EHS reports that it received more than 23,000 overdose calls last year or an average of about 64 per day across the province.

In the last week, the agency received 648 calls, with the peak on Friday — two days after assistance cheques were issued — followed by 80 calls on Saturday and 93 on Sunday.

The most recent month for which the B.C. Coroners Service has provided updated illicit drug death numbers was May, in which 109 people died.


Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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