Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Advocates share fear of worsening overdose crisis in 2021, want national safe supply

British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March

With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives.

Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country.

A public health emergency was declared in 2016, a year that saw 991 deaths. More than 1,500 people have died in British Columbia from illicit drug overdoses in 2020.

Ontario’s chief coroner’s office estimates 50 to 80 people per week are dying of overdoses.

British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March, allowing doctors and nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs.

Karen Ward, a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, said the concept of the program needs to be expanded across the country.

“It’s like you’re struggling to tread water in a tsunami,” she said in an interview, referring to the number of overdoses in B.C.

Experts say COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation as the supply of illicit drugs became more toxic when the border was closed and more drugs were made or altered in Canada. The pandemic has also impeded access to key harm reduction services, such as supervised consumption sites.

The federal government issued data on Wednesday showing 17,602 people have died from opioid overdoses between January 2016 and June 2020.

Between January and June of this year, 86 per cent of all opioid overdose deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario.

“It will get worse. It will, definitely. Unless we stop talking and do some very specific things,” said Ward. “Let’s do safe supply. Nothing is perfect, but let’s find ways to prescribe in your community, in your area, right away. Or it will get worse.”

Along with a national safe supply program, Ward argues decriminalization is something governments should be considering.

It would mean police wouldn’t charge someone caught with a small amount of drugs and they would not seize the substance.

She is also critical of the scope of B.C.’s safe supply program, arguing health professionals need to be more willing to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives.

“We need a variety of ways to access the health benefits that we have decided are necessary,” Ward said.

The federal government announced $9.5 million in funding for four safe supply pilot projects in Ontario in September, but advocates say that the small size of the project doesn’t do enough.

Last month, Vancouver council voted unanimously to ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was unavailable for an interview, but her office sent a statement saying it is reviewing Vancouver’s proposal.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the ongoing opioid crisis. We have lost too many Canadians to overdose and all levels of government must redouble our efforts to save lives,” she said in the statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September that he supported safe supply but maintained his stance against drug decriminalization.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, a professor at the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, said more support is needed for safe supply programs and decriminalization efforts.

“Safe supply, to me, is the only real practical thing to do,” he said in an interview.

It’s frustrating to see governments and public health agencies not put as much effort as they could into saving the lives of drug users, said Tyndall, who used to head B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control and worked to launch an opioid vending machine in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“I’m pretty pessimistic,” he said on what the next year holds for drug users. “The chance of you overdosing from street drugs are probably higher than they were five years ago … we haven’t really made any significant changes that have made people safer.”

Zoe Dodd, a co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said governments need to understand the wider impact that overdoses are having.

“If we don’t seriously address the overdose crisis, we will lose a workforce,” she said.

Along with safe supply and decriminalization, more support is needed for people who work and volunteer at overdose prevention sites.

Safe supply, combined with drug decriminalization, is needed to truly make a difference, Dodd said.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

overdose

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cedar Valley Lodge, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the LNG Canada Project site in Kitimat. The most recent outbreak among workers at the project site was just declared over. (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Second COVID-19 outbreak at LNG Canada Project site declared over

The outbreak was first declared on Dec. 16, 2020

CGL has closed down the two lodges affected to everyone except the essential staff. (Black Press file photo)
All COVID-19 cases associated with Coastal GasLink outbreak deemed recovered

Outbreaks occurred at CGL project accommodation sites in Burns Lake and Nechako Local Health Areas

Prince Rupert Branch of BC SPCA has partnered with the Greater Massett Food Bank to provide pet food to guardians in need during the pandemic, Joe Griffiths manager of BC SPCA said on Jan. 6. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Greater Massett Food Bank partners with BC SPCA

Greater Masset Food Bank has recently received more than 800 kg of pet food for those in need

High wind warnings have been issued by Environment Canada for Haida Gwaii and the North Coast on Jan. 5, 2021. (image supplied)
High wind warnings in effect for Haida Gwaii and the North Coast

Winds will pick up in the afternoon in exposed coastal sections

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)

Most Read