News / Vancouver

'Empowerment…only way out' of overdose crisis

Overdose Awareness Day vigil honours lost loved ones

Mourners of the growing number of drug overdose victims in Vancouver write on a memorial fabric during an International Overdose Awareness Day memorial service on Aug 31, 2017 in the Downtown Eastside.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Mourners of the growing number of drug overdose victims in Vancouver write on a memorial fabric during an International Overdose Awareness Day memorial service on Aug 31, 2017 in the Downtown Eastside.

Some mourned alone. Others hugged in tears. Some drummed. One Armed Forces member bagpiped. Some laughed about better times.

But almost without exception, everyone gathered at an overdose vigil in the Downtown Eastside Thursday didn't hesitate to grab a neighbour's hand and hold it when invited to do so.

It always hurts to lose a loved one, intoned Musqueam elder Shane Pointe, who prayed and MCed the memorial event on International Overdose Awareness Day.

"But when you lose someone through trauma," he said, "it hurts even more… but in that pain we can't lose sight of the need to keep moving forward as best as we can … to continue to help."

For Portland Hotel Society's Aboriginal health director Patrick Smith, the crisis that's killed 760 just this year requires a more "holistic" approach than simply life-saving and harm reduction — essential as those are.

"I'm so tired of seeing the very people most deserving of love and kindness — who have been pushed away by everybody — still get substandard health services," he told Metro. "Looking just at the physical side, without looking at the emotional, mental or spiritual side, forgets that people have experienced horrific childhoods, lives and trauma and are down here just looking for some relief for their pain."

Dozens wrote names of loved ones killed by overdoses on a large fabric heart. But the day also saw calls to action, including the newly formed national advocacy organization the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD) and three cities' overdose prevention societies issuing a how-to guide for people who want to open their own "pop-up overdose prevention sites," CAPUD said in a statement.

"The only way out of this overdose crisis," said the group's president, Jordan Westfall, "is through the empowerment of people who use drugs … to reduce overdose deaths in their communities."

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

5 things we could do right now to curb drug overdose epidemic:

Thursday is International Overdose Awareness Day, and Metro looks at just a few of the ideas to end an ongoing epidemic that's on track to kill 1,560 British Columbians in 2017 — 70 per cent worse than last year.

Start early

A new study by Simon Fraser University's Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction urged better addictions and mental health services for youth, and finds comparable data between provinces inadequate. Meanwhile, the Canadian Mental Health Association B.C. called for prioritizing early intervention for teens; their research suggested 58,000 B.C. youth don't get needed mental health help.

Treatment beds boost

Addiction experts and advocates have identified a severe shortage of addiction treatment options in the province, despite a 16-month-long declared public health emergency. Some substance users have to travel far to costly rehabilitation centres outside B.C., while others warn of inconsistent standards for existing private facilities here.

Emotional resilience

Downtown Eastside addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté's ground-breaking book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts revealed how almost all his drug-addicted patients had experienced abuse or neglect as children. Likewise, the First Nations Health Authority warned that lasting scars from colonization and systemic abuses were one reason 800 per cent more First Nations women have overdosed than other women. Clearly a mental wellness emergency is afoot, and psychosocial interventions beyond life-saving measures are urgently needed.

Artisanal opiates?

Most overdoses have been from drugs laced with fentanyl and its even deadlier cousins. An Aug. 17 B.C. Centre for Disease Control report asked, why not let opiate users grow their own poppies to ensure an untainted supply? It suggested authorities "explore medical opium" through "grower’s clubs, production on a model similar to medical marijuana, personal cultivation."

Legalize and prescribe drugs

It sounds extreme, but what could be more extreme than four British Columbians dying every day because of a contaminated drug supply? That's why drug user organizations such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users want not only more readily available prescription heroin — a proven harm reduction treatment endorsed by B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer — but an end to drug prohibition laws they say have let organized drug crime to essentially get away with murder. Portugal decriminalized hard drugs, for instance, a proposal echoed by Mothers Stop the Harm founder Leslie McBain, whose son died of an overdose.

More on