The Trail Cenotaph was a solemn yet appropriate location to commemorate the more than 7,000 people who have died in B.C. since the overdose crisis began five years ago.
Wednesday, April 14, marked B.C.’s fifth anniversary of declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency as moms from Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) and members of the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network (REDUN) met at the Cenotaph in Trail, and later, outside of the Rossland city council chambers, to raise awareness and support the effort to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.
B.C.’s provincial government responded with the announcing Wednesday of $45 million in funding to be provided for programs aimed at stopping poisonings caused by illicit fentanyl in street drugs, and will request a federal exemption to decriminalize personal possession.
“We’re happy with the premier’s request to decriminalize possession in the province, because if you look at other jurisdictions and what they’ve done to stem opioid deaths that’s a really critical piece,” said MSTH member Diana Daghofer. “So I think today has been really positive, really worthwhile.”
In pre-COVID times, people brought pairs of shoes, but on Wednesday, painted rocks represented loved ones who have died by overdose.
While Daghofer, a Rossland resident, is pleased that governments are starting to take notice, she says there is a lot more work that needs to be done.
Daghofer led a delegation to Rossland city council last month offering a powerful presentation on the crisis and how it has personally affected the lives of West Kootenay residents.
The city responded by joining 40 other communities in Canada to pass a resolution urging the government to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency.
“I think the federal government needs to hear, if they don’t already know, that this is affecting all municipalities across the country,” said Daghofer. “There is nobody that is untouched by the opioid crisis and municipalities cannot deal with it on their own, they need support provincially, they need support nationally, they need a leadership to put a focus and some resources into this issue.”
In Rossland and Trail, there is only one part-time program, the Opioid Replacement Therapy clinic, where substance users are provided prescription drugs to help them stop using street drugs, along with counselling, medical and social support. REDUN has been working to reduce stigma around drug use by doing community clean ups of drug paraphernalia.
“The stigma around drug use means people do not reach out for help, for fear of being arrested, or losing their jobs, homes or families,” said Trail REDUN coordinator Lisa Kavaloff in a news release.
One way that municipalities have addressed the problem is by providing overdose prevention sites. The sites provide a safe, clean space for people to bring their own drugs to use, supervised by trained staff.
They offer a range of evidence-based harm reduction services, such as drug checking, and reduce drug poisoning deaths to almost zero. Depending on the model, overdose prevention sites can also include access to prescription opioid replacement therapy, support/applications to attend drug rehabilitation programs, and on-site medical care.
One study conducted at Insite, Vancouver’s first supervised consumption site, showed that after two years, almost one-quarter of participants had stopped injecting drugs and over half (57 per cent) had entered addiction treatment programs.
Overdose prevention sites also make communities safer.
They reduce public drug use and discarded drug equipment and lessen the strain on police, ambulance and first responder services, so they can focus on other emergencies.
The sites also reduce the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV, Hepatitis C, and provide savings in healthcare costs overall.
Moms Stop the Harm and REDUN are planning a similar visit to Trail council, and hope communities continue to look for ways to address the crisis.
“We need personal stories, we need people who will step up and make this issue real,” said Daghofer. “Too many people think this is a street problem and it’s just a problem with the homeless and we need to make the homeless go away.
“Well it’s not.
“Two-thirds of all overdose deaths, drug-poisoning deaths in Interior Health were inside people’s private residences…
“So most of the people who are dying have homes and families and jobs and people who love them.
“We need to hear these stories more, so people recognize that this affects everybody.”
The province recorded 1,716 deaths by overdose in 2020 with 283 in the Interior Health region – a historic yet tragic high.