Illicit drug overdose deaths in Maple Ridge reached their most tragic level yet, with 35 people dying in 2020.
The BC Coroners Service released the final overdose statistics for 2020, which was the deadliest year ever in the province, with 1,719 deaths.
That was close to doubling the 984 drug toxicity deaths in 2019. Last year the number of overdose deaths in Maple Ridge also dropped to 13, after having averaged 30 for four straight years. Maple Ridge’s previous high was 33 people dying in 2017.
Dennis Fagan, executive director of the Hope for Freedom Society, said people who work with addicts predicted it was going to be a bad year in March. With the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the closure of the border, it was feared the drug supply would be increasingly toxic.
“But I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would be so bad,” said Fagan, whose group operates a recovery home, Hope For Freedom Lodge, in Maple Ridge. “It’s disheartening.”
He said those addicted to opioids are using fentanyl, and with the border closure, addicts in the Lower Mainland cannot find heroin. As harmful as heroin is, said Fagan, users have a greater life expectancy than those using fentanyl.
“The risk now is exponentially higher. When we lose a client, when they relapse, we’re really not sure we’re going to see them again,” he said, adding he personally knows of six people who have overdosed since December.
Some agencies are calling for government to provide a safe supply. Fagan said harm reduction models should be supported if they can contribute to drug users eventually getting to abstinence and recovery.
“Anything that keeps them alive long enough,” he said.
Alouette Addictions executive director Doug Sabourin said the pandemic has also lead to more people using drugs alone, which could have deadly consequences.
“The thing we tell people to do, is when you’re injecting drugs, don’t do it alone,” said Sabourin. “But with COVID, they’re telling people to isolate. So if they overdose, there is nobody around to help them.”
He said the drug supply is so toxic, that even when first responders get to an overdose victim, it can take multiple injections of naloxone to revive them.
Sabourin has been an advocate for a safe supply, and said he doesn’t see situation improving in the coming year.
Sonia Furstenau, leader of the B.C. Greens, joined the chorus of people calling for a safe supply.
“I recently met with a local chapter of Moms Stop the Harm and we discussed the gaping voids in our existing patchwork of supports and services for the countless British Columbians with substance use disorder,” she said. “From treatment options that are either inadequate, unaffordable, or nonexistent, to housing policies that border on punitive, many people with this health condition feel they are being set up to fail.
“The situation is so dire, and the illicit drug supply is so poisonous that one parent told me: ‘we need immediate low barrier, regulated, non-stigmatized safe supply to save people from the poisoned drug supply. Because if your child dies there’s no more time for other interventions to help.’”
Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, confirmed there is increased toxicity due to disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs across the country. A pandemic that isolates drug users even further creates “a recipe for a terrible surge in overdose deaths.”
She said the government will provide more treatment, and work to decriminalize possession.
“I am committed to continuing our unrelenting response to the overdose crisis. To finding even more ways to support and separate people from the poisoned drug supply, adding more treatment beds and recovery options, and working with the federal government to move forward on decriminalization in order to reduce stigma and save lives, as called for by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, public health and advocates.
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