VANCOUVER – An urgent warning has been sent out to illicit drug users in British Columbia after 11 people died in the province on Thursday alone, six of them in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The warning from the BC coroners’ service on Friday came at the same time police, firefighters, the mayor and health officials in Vancouver collectively called on the provincial government to provide treatment on demand for drug users.
“At least six persons died after using drugs in the Downtown Eastside in a span of only eight hours,” the coroners’ service said in a news release, adding that five more people died throughout the rest of the province on Thursday.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said during a news conference that giving people the overdose-reversing drug naloxone isn’t good enough because they just go back onto the streets and use again, when what they need is treatment to turn their lives around.
Treatment for addicts has been woefully inadequate and the city and its emergency workers can’t continue to react indefinitely to the crisis, Robertson said.
He said there are about 1,300 people in Vancouver using illicit opioids every day and that they’re “playing roulette” with fentanyl, which is often cut into street drugs.
Robertson said that while the federal government has announced new measures to allow cities across the country to open supervised-injection sites, more needs to be done to deal with the “horrific impact” of overdose deaths in Vancouver.
“It’s going to take dramatic and immediate action from the B.C. government to invest in treatment options,” he said, adding that the city has already approved a tax hike of 0.5 per cent to help firefighters responding to the crisis.
“It’s desperate times in Vancouver and it’s hard to see any silver lining. We don’t seem to have hit rock bottom.”
In an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday, Premier Christy Clark described the overdose crisis as a complex issue that requires more police and treatment options. But she stopped short of promising more money or programs.
“The thing that frustrates me has been people who say, ‘Here’s the one thing we need more of,'” she said.
“We’re not going to simplify it down to just detox beds. We need more police. We need more RCMP on the ground. We need more Canada Border Services Agency drug interdictions. We need more treaties. We need more health care. We need more naloxone.”
The coroners’ service said that from January to the end of October, 622 people died of illicit overdose deaths in the province and most of those deaths were related to fentanyl.
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said a 35-year officer was recently approached by three drug addicts wanting help accessing treatment dealt with a complex and frustrating system and was eventually told space would not be available for nine days.
“Nine days. You lose the window to help within hours,” Palmer said. “Nine days is an eternity. When somebody is ready, they are ready to get off drugs. We need to help them right away because they’re at risk of dying if we do not help them.
“We want treatment on demand.”
Palmer said he supports the city’s supervised-injection site, Insite, where addicts have been injecting their own drugs since 2003.
“The fentanyl crisis, however, is bringing a new level of urgency to address the lack of detox and treatment options available to people,” he said, adding a longer-term strategy is needed to reduce overdose deaths.
“Right now there’s a huge gap in the system and it’s failing those people who put up their hand and are asking for help in getting clean.”
Palmer said the province’s response to calls for treatment so far have not been good enough.
“I’ve been down to the Downtown Eastside, I’ve talked to those people who work the frontline. Those people know better than the people who are in high-level positions. Those people will tell you that the services are completely inadequate.”
Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive medical director of the BC Centre for Disease Control, said frontline workers are seeing the same people overdosing repeatedly without any follow-up.
“I really understand where the frontline people are coming from, that it seems to be just banging your head against the wall and things just getting worse, and there’s really nowhere to send people.”