Last year, the British Columbia Coroner’s office reported that 914 people in BC passed away as a result of the opioid crisis. Today, those numbers are continuing to climb.
In 2016, fentanyl was detected in more than a third of overdose deaths in British Columbia. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate narcotic that is 50 to 100 times stronger than other opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin. Fentanyl can be incredibly lethal in small doses; in fact, as little as two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to cause an overdose death. That amount is as small as two grains of salt.
The prevalence of fentanyl and carfentanil (which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl) in street drugs has meant that the overdose death rate in British Columbia has increased a staggering 79.2 percent since 2015.
In Vancouver, drug users, allies, grassroots organizations, activists and health professionals have sought to mitigate fentanyl’s far-reaching effects. Their collective and tireless work has meant that several steps have been made to ensure the safety of drug users is prioritized. For example, Narcan training (opiate antidote) has been made free and accessible, tight-knit support networks have been created amongst drug users, peer-supervised overdose prevention sites have been established, and criticism of oppressive drug policies has been rampant.
Despite these efforts, what has become most clear is that Canada’s ‘war on drugs’ approach to stopping overdose deaths is not working. In fact, many experts have pointed to the fact that prohibition may actually be contributing to the crisis.
In an interview with CBC, longtime heroin user Danielle Trudeau suggested that access to clean, predictable drugs could help to greatly improve the safety and well-being of drug users. This sentiment is furthered by Karen Ward, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), who noted, “our overarching demand is to end the war on drugs and for decriminalization, working towards legalization and regulation.” This, she said will ensure that people know “what they are getting.”
Notably, drug users are not the only ones affected by this crisis. Fentanyl’s impact has touched friends, families, neighbours, front-line workers, and loved ones.
In the face of the largest opioid crisis in Canada’s history, many people are looking for tangible things they can do to assist individuals and community members who have been affected. In response to this, here is a list of 12 things people can do right now to support those impacted by the opioid crisis.
1) Donate to community organizations who support drug users: Organizations like VANDU, Insite and the Overdose Prevention Society have been working to ensure that the safety and dignity of drug users is upheld. Over the course of the last year, these organizations have saved many lives. Additionally, they have provided harm reduction supplies and educational tools to ensure that individuals are using safely. Recently, VANDU’s rent has increased, which means that additional resources are especially necessary right now.
2) Attend a Narcan training session: The Downtown Community Health Centre has Narcan training available every Tuesday at 3pm that is open to the public. Narcan training is also available through VANDU, many local pharmacies and other organizations in Vancouver. With more people equipped with Narcan kits and comprehensive Narcan training, there is an increased likelihood that overdose victims will be supported during a crisis.
3) Recognize the signs of an overdose: Being able to spot an overdose when it’s happening means that you can more quickly support an overdose victim. Some of the main signs of an overdose include: slow or absent breathing, blue lips and nails, person is not moving, you can hear gurgling sounds or snoring, the person can’t be woken up, their skin feels cold and clammy, and their pupils are tiny. If you see someone with these symptoms, stay with them and call 911 right away.
4) Know the things you can do to prevent an overdose: Some of the ways you can reduce the chances of experiencing an overdose include: using with someone else, starting with a small amount, avoid mixing substances as much as possible (this increases the risk of overdose), using in areas where help is easily available (for example, Insite) and making preemptive safety plans so that you know how to best respond in the case of an overdose.
5) Educate yourself about British Columbia’s current drug laws: The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition suggests that British Columbians get educated about the failures of prohibition. Most of the 914 overdose deaths that occurred last year are a direct result of illegal, unregulated drug markets. Many advocates and drug users are urging the government to consider changing these policies to make drug use safer. This includes developing new guidelines for prescribing opioids, improving access to opioid substitution treatment such as suboxone, and decriminalizing and regulating street drugs.
6) Foster and maintain meaningful community connections: Well-known drug advocate Johann Hari suggests that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Addiction flourishes in isolation, so taking the time to make a connection can have a huge impact! Isolation can simultaneously create a dangerous situation for drug users (as it means they are likely using alone) and foster a sense of loneliness that makes people more likely to use. Creating strong, inclusive communities can quite literally save a life.
7) Reduce the stigma around drug use: Many advocates and activists have suggested that there needs to be a move away from criminalizing drug users. Instead, it is necessary to consider the lived experiences of the drug user and more readily incorporate the social determinants of health (the social and economic conditions that lead to health problems) into our understanding of drug use. Thinking about a person holistically and removing our value-based judgements from the equation means that drug users aren’t restricted by the ‘addict’ label.
8) Volunteer your time: Over the past several months, many front-line workers have been feeling the weight of the opioid crisis. Donating your time and support to local harm reduction organizations at the street level can help to alleviate some of the stress felt by these workers.
9) Show solidarity: Attend community meetings, marches and forums that focus on the fentanyl crisis. Importantly, showing support, raising concerns, and being visible demonstrates to the Ministry of Health that the opioid crisis is something that British Columbians care about, and want to see the Ministry work harder to resolve. On February 21st, VANDU is organizing a demonstration as part of a national day of action on the overdose crisis. The protest aims to bring awareness to the issue, and to urge the government to end its war on drugs and harmful policies that are fuelling this crisis. For more information about this event, check out the Facebook page.
10) Spread the word: Many Vancouverites are uninformed about what is happening with regards to the opioid crisis, or are unsure about how they can help. Keeping people up to date and offering tangible solutions can influence community involvement, empathy, and understanding.
11) Promote harm reduction tactics: Safe injection sites such as Insite, the Overdose Prevention Society (AKA the pop-up tents that have been organized by Sarah Blyth, Chris Ewart and Ann Livingston), and a number of other organizations have been working tirelessly to ensure that drug users are able to use safely. Harm reduction will not eliminate the fentanyl issue, but it will mean that people will be supported in the event of an overdose. You can promote these spaces by referring people in your community to them, donating to them (here is a GoFundMe page for the Overdose Prevention Society) and advocating to ensure their doors stay open.
12) Write your Member of Parliament to express your concerns: Your local MP can shed light on the opioid crisis in parliament. Putting pressure on your MP to address the opioid crisis, and the many systemic issues that have contributed to the high number of overdose deaths, may mean that it’s considered more quickly, and with more urgency, by the federal government.