As the anniversary of British Columbia's drug crisis marks, experts say innovation is needed


It's been eight years since a toxic drug public health emergency was declared in British Columbia, and a local harm reduction expert says we need stronger measures to address the problem.

Guy Felicella, a Vancouver-based harm reduction expert, says the drug crisis is heartbreaking and is getting worse over the years.

“The medication is getting worse and worse. Unfortunately, we have simply not been able to free or free people from this unregulated drug supply,” he told CityNews.

“It costs us between six and seven lives every day.”

Thousands of people across the province are affected by the drug crisis.

As of January, more than 14,000 people have died from toxic drugs in the province, according to the BC Coroner's Service.

Felicella says people need regulated access to opioids.

“If people continue to use this drug supply, eventually they will die,” he said.

“Everyone has done a lot, but the elephant in the room is the supply of toxic drugs… The drugs that are being offered are the drugs that are being used in the unregulated market.”

He says BC could develop a path with a medicalized approach and one outside of a medicalized approach to alleviate the crisis.

“Where people had access to opioids that they knew they were using, such as diacetylmorphine,” Felicella said.

“In countries like Switzerland it worked very well.”

More help for British Columbians on their road to recovery

The harm reduction expert says BC needs to start becoming “more innovative and bold” and try new approaches to reduce the extent of the harm.

He says the data proves how volatile and unpredictable the drug supply is and that recovery is a long-term thing.

“Recovery to get off drugs… is the ultimate goal, but the reality is that it takes so many years for people to achieve it, or often be able to achieve it, and then when they go into treatment and start using again , unfortunately die,” said Felicella.

“So it's just one of those things that we really need to stop. Everyone from all across the spectrum comes together, sits down and says, 'What is the best approach right now to save lives?'”

BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonny Henry, says recovery is a complex journey and different for everyone.

“People who use drugs come from all walks of life and in all parts of this province. This diversity is also reflected in why people use drugs in the first place. For many, it is about dealing with physical, emotional and psychological pain, often stemming from past trauma,” she said.

8th Anniversary of the BC Emergency, Remembering Community Support

Felicella has had his own experiences with substance use and tries his best to share his own experiences to help other people in his community.

On the occasion of the anniversary, he declares that he shows solidarity with those who lost their lives as a result of this crisis.

“To remember the friendships and the people you were with every day and just supporting others today,” Felicella said.

“It's a really sad day for a lot of reasons… and the amount of work that people put into trying to help people and fighting for them is amazing… and never forget it's been eight years.”

Many people have lost their lives due to this crisis, Felicella explained, and he is providing what support he can.

“I've just seen so much death in my life. It’s just not normal,” he said.

“I'm traveling to a number of rural communities this week to give talks to support not just secondary schools but also communities that are really struggling.”

He says it was a humbling experience sharing his experiences with everyone.

“In the hope of inspiring other young people who are struggling, we can reach out to them for support.”

“I hope everyone can put aside their differences and look at the reality of what is killing people in our society.”

Felicella says if BC continues to allow this to continue, it will “hit you right on your doorstep” and he doesn't want anyone to succumb to the experience.

“It’s bigger than us, it’s all about people and we have to do it to retain the future generation,” he said.

“They are doing everything they can to stop the emergency, similar to what we did with COVID. If we applied the same efforts in response as we have in other public health emergencies, we would have a different outcome.”

The province speaks out on the anniversary, noting the impact on Indigenous communities

In a statement marking the anniversary on Sunday, Prime Minister David Eby said every life claimed by this crisis is a loss to our community. They are friends, parents, siblings and children.

Eby said the province is working to expand programs aimed at saving lives and building a better, more connected mental health and addiction care system.

“This includes expanding access to two innovative, made-in-British Columbia models of care: the Red Fish Healing Center model, which prioritizes trauma-informed care; and the Road to Recovery model, which helps patients move seamlessly through the full spectrum of treatment services,” he said.

“We are also expanding support for youth mental health and addictions, including through collaboration with a first-of-its-kind Indigenous youth support center with detoxification services.”

The provincial health officer says the province is aware of the impact of the crisis on Indigenous people.

“We also know that the impact of anti-Indigenous racism and intergenerational trauma from colonial practices has resulted in a disproportionate impact on First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in B.C.,” Henry said.

“We must continue to be courageous and innovative in our approach to addressing this public health crisis that continues to claim the lives of our friends and families in B.C. every day.”

-With files from Catherine Garrett.