Nine people died of drug overdoses in Vancouver last night

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Vancouver’s mayor, police chief and fire chief are calling on the provincial government to help control the ongoing opioid crisis in this province. Last night, police say nine people died of drug overdoses — eight of them on the Downtown Eastside.

As of the end of November, Police Chief Adam Palmer says officers have investigated 160 overdose deaths and 35 were recorded last month alone. He describes a situation that is desperate on the streets and among drug users who, he says, are turning to first responders because they need help.

Palmer feels there are gaps in the system and more needs to be done to increase treatment options. “If somebody is fortunate enough to get into detox, they need to be moved into a treatment and recovery plan after detoxing. But space in these treatment facilities is not always available. The gap increases the chance of relapse and some never even make it to treatment and recovery.”

The chief adds progress has been made on the Four Pillars drug strategy that pushes for prevention, harm reduction, enforcement and treatment. “We are making progress on three of the four pillars but where we’re failing is treatment. There is a lot of focus right now placed on harm reduction because people’s lives are at immediate risk. The fentanyl crisis, however, is bringing a new level of urgency to address the lack of detox and treatment options available to people. We need a longer term strategy.”

Palmer says one of his officers, who works on the Downtown Eastside, is currently helping two women get help. “She found those two women [treatment] spaces — one in Armstrong and the other one in Nanaimo. Can you imagine that in the largest city in our province that we have to find treatment for people in Armstrong and Nanaimo? And quite frankly, it’s not even the primary responsibility of the police to take on this role, although we do it from a human compassion perspective.”

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson echoed Palmer’s comments and called on Victoria for help. “We need, from the BC government significant upstream investments and treatment and detox to help people break that cycle that means we could see a turning the corner here.”

The police chief, mayor and fire chief held a joint news conference outlining their frustration and all agree that as bad as the crisis is in Vancouver — this is definitely a province-wide problem. “As the chief said, waiting eight or nine days to access treatment beds is unacceptable. Our staff, working with the local health authorities, believe there are about 1,300 people who are using illicit opioids every day in Vancouver and are at immediate risk of overdosing. That’s 1,300 people on any given day who are playing with roulette with fentanyl.”

Robertson admits there is no easy fix to this and is hoping to see more done from a community perspective to help combat mental health and addictions issues. “In recent years, we’ve talked about hundreds of beds being needed for people with severe mental illnesses — we know at least 100 treatment beds are necessary. And residential treatment beds for those with severe addictions within that and able to access the treatment that’s so essential.”

The BC Coroners Service says there have been more than 620 fatal overdoses from illicit drugs between January and October compared with 397 during the same period last year. “We are not sure what has caused this very distressing spike in fatalities,” says chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. “It will take detailed toxicology testing and further investigation to try to determine that.”

She adds there were also overdoses in Burnaby, in the Fraser Region and in northern BC last night.

Health Minister Terry Lake and Minister of Public Safety Mike Morris have issued the following statement on the overdose crisis:

“As one of the areas most severely affected by the overdose epidemic, we acknowledge the sense of urgency and crisis being felt in Vancouver. We take this situation very seriously, which is why provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency in April and Premier Christy Clark established a joint task force to mobilize the province’s response to this crisis.

“The overdose crisis is a very complex issue involving many social factors, including housing, public safety, policing, border control, public health, harm reduction, and addiction and recovery treatment, as well as legislation that crosses many jurisdictional boundaries. There is no quick and easy solution, but we are taking decisive action across all sectors to do all we
can to respond and save lives. This includes significant expenditures, totalling more than $43 million that has been earmarked so far to support this work.

“Most in the spotlight thus far have been our actions to address the immediate harms and save lives right now – through harm reduction measures like expanding access to naloxone, establishing overdose prevention sites, stationing the province’s Mobile Medical Unit in the Downtown Eastside and working with the federal government to interrupt the supply of drugs coming into the country. However, there is also significant work taking place on the longer-term solutions required to ensure we have a more co-ordinated and accessible system of care for addictions treatment.”

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