‘The perfect storm’: more poisoning calls than ever as overdose crisis turns 7

British Columbia’s Emergency Health Services has released grim statistics about the toxic drug crisis ahead of the seventh anniversary of the province’s declaration of a public health emergency.

B.C. recorded the most overdose calls in one day, the highest 30-day average of overdose calls and the most consecutive days with 100 or more poisonings by paramedics in March.

The province is also on track to set a new record for poisoning calls in a year and tie its annual record for the most doses of naloxone administered to reverse the effects of opioids.

On April 14, 2016, British Columbia was the first jurisdiction in Canada to declare a public health emergency due to an increase in drug overdoses. Drug overdose deaths had reached 474 in 2015, a 30 percent increase on the previous year, and the government said more were dying every month.

Toxic drug supply claimed nearly 2,300 lives in B.C. last year

Leslie McBain, one of the founding members of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, said the number of illicit drug poisoning calls was devastating but not surprising.

The drug supply is increasingly toxic, she said, and there aren’t enough tests to let drug users know what they’re eating.

“It’s a risk because there’s something new[in the drug]and it’s different in strength, there’s no consistency between the drugs, and obviously, there are still people who need these drugs. It’s a perfect storm.”

The data shows that B.C. recorded an average of 119.9 overdoses per day in March. The previous 30-day high was 116.2 recorded between July and August 2021.

For 19 days, from March 15 to April 2, emergency medical services were notified of 100 or more poisonings per day. The previous record for consecutive days was 15, set in August 2021.

On March 22, 2023, paramedics received a total of 205 poisoning calls in British Columbia, breaking the new record of 203 set on January 19, 2022.

McBain, whose 25-year-old son Jordan died of a drug overdose in 2014, remembers feeling optimistic when BC declared a state of emergency, believing it would start the momentum needed for change.

“I never expected, and I never expected, that it was going to get worse,” she said.

The public face of the emergency in its early years was Dr. Perry Kendall, medical officer of health.

Kendall, now retired, told The Canadian Press that if those in power realized how toxic the drug supply was, they might have worked earlier to increase access to a safe supply.

“I think what was needed then, if we knew — and that’s still very debated — was the whole issue of increasing the safe supply and actually getting enough stocks of good drugs for those people who were really trying to get treatment,” he said .

Kendall said the state of emergency was declared to raise public awareness and to call for faster release of data on overdoses and deaths.

A task force was called to organize the emergency response.

“We introduced overdose prevention sites, the minister ordered regional health authorities to open overdose prevention sites where needed, coroners were able to provide us with information quickly … we have a substantial budget to increase the response,” he said.

At first, their efforts seemed to have some impact, Kendall said. The death toll held steady at 1,500 in 2017 and 2018 before falling below 1,000 in 2019.

“And then COVID hit,” he said.

“People just don’t have access to the regulated consumer sites, overdose prevention sites that they need, and that’s going to bounce back in 2020, 2021, 2022.”

Kendall is an advocate for national drug legalization and Canada-wide safe supply programs.

“Prohibition, criminalization and stigma don’t make life better for a lot of people. They don’t stop people from using drugs, they just make them more dangerous,” he said.

“So the decriminalization experiment is one element that might help reduce stigma and improve the problem, but it’s not enough.”

He said there was a “moral responsibility” to make medicines safer with regulated supplies available to adults so they knew what they were consuming.

“I think that unless we can come up with a mechanism to change people’s personalities on a massive scale so they’re not interested in using mind-altering substances — and I obviously don’t think we’ll be able to do that — we’re going to Create a safer regulated supply,” he said.

Seven years later, McBain said she’s seeing signs of improvement in B.C.’s policies to help drug users, but not fast enough.

As in 2016, she said, the need for secure supplies remains a top priority.

McBain pointed out that several people die every day in the province, and when you multiply that number by another, two to three years until there is a safe supply, thousands more die from toxic drugs.

“So, you know, we need to treat this like an emergency that was declared seven years ago, but it doesn’t appear to be considered an emergency.”

—Ashley Joannou, Canadian Press

overdose crisis

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