B.C. looking at new approaches to toxic drug crisis as deaths continue to climb

The number of deaths due to drug toxicity in B.C. is increasing, and the government says it is looking to take on new approaches to deal with the crisis.

Premier David Eby said during an unrelated news conference Thursday that since the toxic drug supply crisis was declared in April 2016 and from then until Sept. 2023, the BC Coroners Service believes at least 13,000 lives have been lost to toxic, unregulated drugs.

“It’s horrific to think about that death toll and the coroner has been on the front lines of meeting with families, talking with those left behind about the loss of loved one.”

Eby explained that the government is shifting its advertising and communication about the significant risk of the drug supply to the general public, and targeting younger demographics.

“We are trying different things to get at this problem to communicate to people the severity of what we’re facing, to get people the chance to get into recovery, to rebuild their lives,” he said.

When asked about whether the province is rethinking its approach to illicit drugs in terms of decriminalization and prosecution, Eby said the “sale of illicit drugs in British Columbia has always remained criminalized.”

But he said that this does not mean they want to punish people for no reason. “We don’t think that the way forward facing addiction is to arrest them and put them in jail. We need to get them connected to care which is why we focused on getting health practitioners between them and predatory drug dealers,” Eby said.

Along with those specifics, Eby said the government has previously announced new initiatives and treatment models for addiction care, like the Road to Recovery program run out of St. Paul’s Hospital, to deal with the increasing death numbers.

“This program, when people overdose and they show up in the emergency room, they’ll be able to get into detox and into treatment and back once they’ve recovered back into the community with supports, seamlessly without having to call a number without having to go somewhere else, without having to transition care to someone else is going to be really meaningful, and really significant,” he said.

He explained that 94 people have already been through the program and it’s “remarkable the work that’s happening in building up [B.C.’s] recovery system.”

However, he also added that it’s “not enough, and there’s more we have to do.”

Eby says they are using these new tools to respond to the issues of public consumption of hard drugs and will keep doing so to “keep people alive.”

Eby’s comments regarding the province’s shift in approach come after Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside made it clear at the beginning of November that the province will not pursue a non-prescription approach to safer supply — the key recommendation from the BC Coroners Service toxic drug death review panel.

The Coroners Service’s panel recommendations released in October urged the government to increase access to safer supply programs outside of the healthcare system.

Whiteside said at the time the province is expanding access to mental health and addiction care for people in all regions, and “working every day” to add services including early intervention and prevention, treatment, and recovery, however, “Non-prescription models for the delivery of pharmaceutical alternatives are not under consideration.”

-With files from Charlie Carey, Hana Mae Nassar, and Pippa Norman

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