Eight years after British Columbia declared a public health emergency, the drug crisis continues to rage


British Columbia Premier David Eby says the deaths have taken a toll on friends and family of those who died, as well as front-line workers who dealt with the damage

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In the 12 years she's worked for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, executive director Brittany Graham has lost track of the people she's seen fall victim to British Columbia's drug crisis.

Sunday marked eight years to the day since the province declared a public health emergency over the deadly toxic drug crisis, and Graham said it marks a somber anniversary as she and others in public health reflect on the thousands of deaths.

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“Last time I counted, there were somewhere between 65 and 75 people, and to give people that perspective, that's more than a full yellow school bus,” Graham said in an interview Sunday, referring to the deaths of people she has known in her twelve years working with the support network.

“These are a lot of people who no longer exist who were kind and considerate and just really nice people.”

In a statement released on Sunday, Prime Minister David Eby said the drugs crisis had had a “catastrophic impact” on families and communities.

“There is still a lot to do,” Eby said. “And together we can end a crisis that has affected far too many of our neighbors, friends and family members.”

The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, also noted in the statement that the health emergency has placed an “unprecedented burden” on the province.

In April 2016, the British Columbia government and health authority declared a state of emergency and since then more than 14,000 people have died, most of them from the powerful opioid fentanyl.

Graham said a community meeting on the anniversary of the declaration will allow Downtown Eastside community members to “grieve together” and discuss how they can “build their path forward.”

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But with both provincial and federal elections looming, Graham fears that “toxic politics will kill people next” as politicians vie to win votes touting ineffective solutions to the deadly crisis.

She said there needs to be similar regulations for drugs as for alcohol.

“Alcohol is in many ways one of the most toxic substances you can consume, but because we educate people, we have minimum pricing standards, because we have regulations about where you can access it and where you can drink it, those are all options.” which harm reduction and public health are used for that particular substance. Nothing like that is currently happening with illegal substances,” she said.

“This is a toxic drug crisis. So without regulation there will be more and more drug deaths.”

Eby noted that toxic drug deaths have taken a toll on friends and family of those who died, but also on frontline workers who are struggling with the ongoing harm caused by addiction and drug deaths.

He said the situation must be recognized as a “health crisis,” adding his government is trying to build and improve the province's mental health and addiction care systems.

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Henry, meanwhile, said drug users come from “all walks of life” and often struggle with trauma. Anyone trying to break free from addiction must go through a recovery process that is not “linear” or dependent on complete abstinence. She said.

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

Graham said all governments needed to rethink their approach to drug users, recognizing that support systems were inadequate and those seeking help were unable to seek treatment if they chose to seek it.

At the same time, she said, many city governments have pushed for laws that would ban drug use in public, further marginalizing users with no where to go.

“In the midst of this overdose crisis, we decided to pass a public use law that says now you can't go outside,” she said. “These communities don’t want to fix anything. They just want people to go away, and these are real people with real families, with real lives, with real jobs, and the further you push people away, the bigger this crisis becomes.”

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