‘Bold’ moves needed to combat B.C. drug crisis on 8th anniversary of public health alert: expert

It’s been eight years since the toxic drug public-health emergency was declared in B.C., and a local harm reduction expert says we need stronger policies to address it.

Guy Felicella, a Vancouver-based harm reduction expert, says the drug crisis is heartbreaking and worsening over the years.

“The drugs are getting worse. Sadly we just haven’t been able to alleviate or remove people from that unregulated drug supply,” he told CityNews.

“It’s costing us between six to seven lives every day.”

Thousands of people across the province have been impacted by the toxic-drug crisis.

As of January, the BC Coroner’s Service says more than 14,000 people have died from toxic drugs in the province.

Felicella says people need regulated access to opioids.

“If people are going to continue to use that drug supply, then they’re going to die, eventually,” he said.

“Everybody’s done a lot, but the elephant in the room is the toxic drug supply … The drugs that are being offered are the drugs that are being used in the unregulated market.”

He says B.C. could develop a pathway with a medicalized approach, and one outside of a medicalized approach to alleviate the crisis.

“Where people had access to opioids that they knew they were consuming, such as diacetylmorphine,” Felicella said.

“It has worked in countries such as Switzerland very well.”

More help for British Columbians on their recovery journey

The harm reduction expert says B.C. needs to start being more “innovative and bold” in trying new approaches to reduce the amount of harm.

He says the data proves just how volatile and unpredictable the drug supply is, and recovery is something that’s long-term.

“Recovery to get off drugs … is the ultimate goal, but the reality is that takes so many years for people to achieve, or often can achieve, and then when they go through treatment and use again, sadly they die,” Felicella said.

“So it’s just one of those things that we have to really stop. Everybody gets together from all sides of the spectrum and sits down and says, ‘What’s the best approach right now to save lives.'”

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonny Henry says recovery is a complex journey and is different for everyone.

“People who use drugs come from all walks of life in all parts of this province. That diversity is also reflected in why people use drugs in the first place. For many, it is to deal with pain, physical, emotional, and psychological pain often stemming from previous trauma,” she said.

8th anniversary of B.C. emergency reminder to support community

Felicella has had his own experiences with substance use and tries his best to share his own stories to help other people in his community.

He explains that he’s standing in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones to this crisis to mark the anniversary.

“To remember the friendships and the people you hung around with every day, just being supportive of others today,” Felicella said.

“It’s a really sad day for a lot of reasons … and the amount of work that people put in trying to help and fight for people (is great) … and never forget that this is eight years.”

“I’ve just seen so much death in my life. It’s just not normal,” he continued.

“I’m off to a bunch of rural communities this week doing talks out there to support not only in high schools but communities that are really struggling.”

Felicella says it’s been humbling to share his experiences with everyone, “in the hopes to inspire other youth that are struggling.”

“I hope that everybody could just put their differences aside, and look at the reality of what’s killing people in our society,” he explained.

Felicella says if B.C. keeps allowing deaths to continue, it will “hit you right at your doorstep.”

“It’s bigger than us, it’s just about people and we have to do it in order to keep the future generation,” he said.

“You do everything to stop the emergency. Similar to what we did with COVID, if we put the same effort in response that we did in other public health emergencies, we would have a different outcome.”

Province remarks on anniversary, notes impact on Indigenous communities

In a statement marking Sunday’s anniversary, Premier David Eby said each life taken by this crisis is a loss to our community.

Eby says the province is working to expand programs that work to save lives and build a better, more connected system of mental health and addiction care.

“This includes expanding access to two innovative made-in-B.C. models of care: the Red Fish Healing Centre model, which prioritizes trauma-informed care; and the Road to Recovery model, which helps patients move seamlessly through a full spectrum of treatment services,” he said.

“We are also expanding youth mental health and addiction supports, including by partnering on a first-of-its-kind centre to support Indigenous youth with detox services.”

Meanwhile, the provincial health officer says B.C. also recognizes how Indigenous people are affected by the crisis.

“We also know the effects of anti-Indigenous racism and the intergenerational trauma from colonial practices have led to disproportionate impacts on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in B.C.,” Henry said.

“We must continue to have courage and to be innovative in our approach to this public health crisis that continues taking the lives of our friends and families in B.C. daily.”

-With files from Catherine Garrett

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