B.C. safer supply criticisms shot down by coroner

With the latest figures showing more than 12,000 people have died in B.C. from the toxic drug supply since 2016, the chief coroner and a drug policy advocate are pushing back against recent criticisms of safer supply.

With the latest figures showing more than 12,000 people have died in B.C. from the toxic drug supply since 2016, the chief coroner and a drug policy advocate are pushing back against recent criticisms of safer supply.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says the word “disappointing” doesn’t even begin to describe how she feels about people who claim safer supply isn’t the answer to B.C.’s drug crisis.

“The people that I’ve seen being critical are people who are not basing their criticism on evidence,” Lapointe told CityNews Thursday.

The coroner says the pushback against safer supply isn’t backed up by the science.

“There’s a small group of individuals who are using this as a political weapon and I feel very, very badly that they are using this as a political weapon, literally, on the bodies of 12,000 people who have died,” Lapointe asserted. “Disappointing is too soft a word for how I feel about that. I think it’s reprehensible that this is a medical crisis that people are trying to politicize.”

She says there’s a lot of hearsay, “a lot of allegation, there’s a lot of rumour,” when it comes to these claims.

“I can tell you, we do post-mortem toxicology testing on every person who dies when there’s any inkling that substances may be involved. We are not seeing safer supply increasing in the tests that we’re seeing, we’re not seeing people dying as a result of safer supply,” Lapointe said.

“Safer supply is not something different from what is already out in the market. So this notion that somehow it is contributing to the mortality is just wrong, it is just absolutely wrong.”

She says no one in B.C. has died from safer supply, adding thousands have from unregulated drugs. More will continue to lose their lives without change, Lapointe adds.

A coroner’s death review panel in March 2022 recommended the province urgently expand a safer supply of drugs to prevent further deaths. However, that has yet to happen.

“People need to understand that safer supply is prescribed for people who are opioid-dependent. There are some doctors prescribing other safer supply, which is a really great, courageous move, but these drugs have always been available in our province,” Lapointe said.

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and host of the Crackdown Podcast, says these aren’t just numbers — they’re people.

“I’ve been down to the Glenhaven Funeral Home on Hastings it feels like just about every week or at least a couple times a month so far this year. So I feel sad about it, I feel haunted to be honest. I feel haunted by the ghost of all the people I know who’ve died,” he said in an interview with CityNews Thursday.

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Mullins now refers to Vancouver as a “city of death” and “a necropolis” because of the level of deaths he sees on a regular basis.

“I say that Vancouver is a necropolis because it just happens to be that I live here. I don’t mean the Downtown Eastside. I don’t mean the 100 block of East Hastings. Because the coroner finds people dead at home all over the city — in the leafy suburbs east and west, north and south, by the Burrard Inlet, on the Fraser River, down the Fraser Valley — all over B.C. and all over Canada,” he said.

He says the deaths are a government policy failure and calls the pushback against safe supply a “moral panic,” adding he fears for the future.

“I am really worried that what we’re going to see in the next few years is a real backlash, a real return to some of the worst periods of the drug war, and we’re just going to see more and more people dying,” he explained.

On Thursday, Lapointe revealed 206 people in B.C. died of “unregulated drugs” in April. Meanwhile, the BC Coroners Service says 814 lives were lost in the first four months of this year.

“I continue to feel tremendously sad for the families because each of these numbers represents a person who had a family, who had friends, a community. And it’s hard, I’ve used the word incomprehensible, and I think it’s really, almost hard for people to understand that six people are dying every day — or more, almost seven people last month — and they’re dying in communities across the province,” she said.

The coroner stresses the drug crisis is not isolated to the Downtown Eastside, adding the health emergency is far reaching.

Lapointe says it’s critical we listen to experts, who continue to push for expanded safer supply to curb the number of deaths.

In addition to politics, she feels there are a few things contributing to the narratives against safer supply. Fear is among them, with Lapointe pointing to stigma that’s often associated with drug use as a driving factor.

-With files from Charlie Carey

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