Record overdose deaths prompt more calls for safe drug supply in BC

Gemma Higgins was a 19-year-old budding artist, musician and DJ who died of an overdose in 2017, a year after British Columbia declared the toxic drug crisis a public health emergency.

But her mother Karma Leroux says since then, it’s only gotten worse.

“Five years later, it’s just appalling how little has been done,” said Leroux.

Tainted drugs killed 174 British Columbians in February, the highest on record for that month, and it was the 17th consecutive month in which deaths topped 150.

“The answers are there. It’s just the politicians are not taking enough action to change policies we desperately need to save lives,” Leroux said. “The safe supply is the number one thing that has to happen. Because treatment, recovery, all of that is not going to happen if people die.”

BC was the first province to introduce a safe supply program for drug users in 2020.

“We are very grateful to the doctors and the nurse practitioners who are prescribing safe supply, and we continue to expand that,” said Sheila Malcolmson, the minister of mental health and addictions. “Our announcement last summer is that this would be implemented throughout the health authorities, and that work continues.”

But Leroux said some users have been unable to source a safe supply. “I hear of many people that can’t get it. And it’s not easy to get, and it should be easily accessible,” she said.

The minister admits the pandemic has exacerbated BC’s toxic drug problem.

“It has made everything worse,” said Malcolmson. “And so not withstanding the fact our government is announcing new mental health and substance supports like we are today almost every week, we have not been able to outpace the terrible increases in drug toxicity.”

Leroux believes drug users haven’t been prioritized for care during the pandemic, saying “People who use drugs have just as much right to stay alive as people who have other health crises that we know about.”

While the monthly overdose numbers are shocking, Leroux says they don’t begin to tell the story of families devastated by the toxic drug crisis.

“These are not just statistics. These are beautiful family members, these are people we love, and they’re dying,” she said. “And it’s preventable.”

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