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High illicit drug toxicity death rate in city prompts call for public health emergency

Nelson owns the notoriety of having the highest illicit drug toxicity death rate in the health service delivery region so far in 2021, according to figures recently released by the BC Coroners Service — Creative Commons.

Nelson owns the notoriety of having the highest illicit drug toxicity death rate in the health service delivery region so far in 2021, according to figures recently released by the BC Coroners Service.

At 42.1 (per 100,000 person-years), the city sits just above Castlegar (39.5) in the Kootenay Boundary, and was 27th highest in the province. The overall overdose death rate for the Kootenay Boundary region was 27.2.

Up to June this year, there have been four recorded deaths in the city, and 10 overall in the service delivery region of Kootenay Boundary.

Nearly 500 people in B.C. have died of an overdose in first three months of 2021 — 97 more than the same time period last year — according to B.C. coroner reports, with more than five people a day dying of a drug overdose in the province in June. Eighty per cent of the victims this year so far have been men.

B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the illicit drug supply continues to be volatile and unpredictable. Earlier this month, B.C. marked the fifth anniversary of the province declaring a public health emergency on drug overdoses.

“There is no way to measure the catastrophic impact that the loss of these lives have had on every community in our province,” she said in a release late last month.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, we must turn our attention to combatting B.C.’s other public health emergency with the same sense of urgency. We need to ensure that the safe alternative of drugs is available throughout the province.”

Coordinators of ANKORS’ program Rural Empowered Drug Users Network (REDUN) — for current and former drug users, and their friends, family and supporters — have called on the city to add its voice to a nation-wide message asking the federal government to recognize the crisis and provide corresponding funding.

Amber Streukens, harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS, felt there was something that could be done now to turn the tide on the rising number of overdose deaths.

“A safe pharmaceutical supply of drugs that people actually use will have a serious impact on reducing overdose deaths,” she said during a city council meeting in June.

Decriminalization of the drugs is an essential first step to getting through the “muck,” she added, but it won’t have the same impact in reducing overdose fatalities.

“People who are at risk of overdose are, not all but many, diagnostically considered to have a medical condition. We have criminalized the substance of a medical condition through the criminalization of possession, which prevents people from getting help,” she stated.

A safe supply is the number one thing that will save lives right now, said Tammy McLean, who heads up the Opioid Agonist Therapy Clinic in Trail.

Fentanyl was found in 85 per cent of the drugs used in overdose deaths.

“We are finding fentanyl in all street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids,” she said.

McLean asked city council to lend its voice to the call on the federal government to “acknowledge that the opioid crisis is the largest public health (problem) in our lifetime,” with over 7,000 deaths since 2016.

The city needs to petition the Canadian government to declare the overdose crisis a public health emergency, she added, so that it’s taken seriously and funded appropriately to reduce harms and deaths for all Canadians.

“The overdose crisis shows no sign of abating, so we are asking Nelson city council to join Salmo, Trail and Rossland to declare this a serious public health emergency and put just as many resources into solving this as they have done for COVID,” she said in the Nelson city council committee-of-the-whole meeting in June.

Although council did not vote on the matter at the time, the facts did resonate in council chambers.

“When you listen to the numbers and you look at the impact of COVID-19 there’s no question that it’s in the same league of a crisis and loss of life,” said Mayor John Dooley.

The highest total of deaths for the year due to illicit drug toxicity in the Kootenay Boundary was in 2020 at 21, rising from the previous high of 14 recorded the previous two years and 17 in 2017.

Last year 283 deaths from illicit drug toxicity were recorded across the Interior Health Authority region, and 1,716 overdose deaths in B.C. itself last year, both the highest recorded.

Further afield

• REDUN has been meeting in the West Kootenay Boundary region since 2004, with chapters in Nelson, Trail and Grand Forks.

• REDUN is made up of a group of people with lived and living experience of illicit substance use providing support, education and advocacy for people who use drugs.

• REDUN’s mission is to help create an environment that supports the dignity, respect, health, safety and human rights of current and former drug users.