By: Eden Chipperfield, News Writer
Content warning: this article refers to substance-related deaths.
July was a critical month for British Columbians, as outlined in the BC Coroners Service’s data report on deaths involving hazardous substances from August 22. The report stated 198 individuals died from toxic drug supply in July, adding to the quickly rising fatality count from the beginning of 2023.
The BC Coroners Service stated in their report there have been 1,455 fatalities in the past seven months. This timespan marks the highest levels on record since the initial public emergency of toxic drug deaths was announced in 2016.
To further understand the severity of the coroner’s report and how the public emergency affects residents, The Peak connected with Jack Farrell, a PhD student in SFU’s department of criminology. Farrell is engaged in the research project, Imagine Safe Supply, through the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
“The criminalization of drugs has led to an unregulated drug market that facilitates drugs being contaminated with highly potent substitutes (such as fentanyl, and fentanyl derivatives such as carfentanil) and other toxic adulterants,” said Farrell. He added this “has not only failed in every measurable way to reduce harms to people who use drugs, it is a primary cause of the staggering and preventable loss of life we are seeing today.”
Farrell also addressed a significant finding in the report data, quoting: “‘There is no evidence that prescribed safer supply is contributing to unregulated drug deaths.’” He noted this piece of information deconstructs the argument created by many politicians and reporters, who wave off the proposal for safe supply.
Another highlight in the report, as noted by Farrell, is that the “drug toxicity crisis is not localized to any specific community but affects people across generations, occupations, and locations.”
When inquiring about Farrell’s experience working on the Imagine Safe Supply project, Farrell responded: “Safe supply works by providing a known and consistent supply of drugs, so people do not have to access the unpredictable and deadly street supply,” he said. “Our participants expressed a range of health and relational benefits from accessing safe supply, including reduced anxiety, re-engaging in family relationships, finding meaningful employment, maintaining stable housing, engaging in less survival crime, experiencing less withdrawal and infections, and reporting an overall better quality of life.”
In 2016, BC declared a public health emergency due to the loss of life surrounding hazardous drugs. They were the first in Canada to announce the crisis in April 2016. When the announcement was released, there was a “30% increase from the year before (2015).”
In 2022, the toxic drug supply took the lives of approximately 2,383 people in BC. “The overwhelming majority of these deaths were preventable if the government acted appropriately and listened to the needs and solutions, given time and time again by drug user groups such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Drug User Liberation Front (DULF), who have continually stressed the harms and failures of drug prohibition,” said Farrell. “We also heard from our participants in Imagine Safe Supply that non-clinical programs, such as the one currently being run by DULF in Vancouver, are crucial to ensure more people who use drugs have access to safe supply, as many people experience serious barriers to clinical programs.”
On August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day was recognized to help bring awareness and remove stigma from drug-related deaths. “Stigma prevents us from recognizing the capacity, creativity and value of people who use drugs. Understanding that people who use drugs have always been on the frontline. Developing innovative strategies to keep themselves and others safe can make clear how inaccurate and damaging misconceptions about drug users are. Again, however, while getting informed is an important first step, the most effective way people can help is by getting involved.”