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Cranbrook advocates mark 8th year of toxic drug crisis

Cranbrook Daily Townsman - 4/17/2024

Advocates gathered to mark the eighth anniversary of the B.C. government declaring a public health emergency in response to the illicit toxic drug supply that has killed thousands of people over the last decade.

The event was organized by the East Kootenay Network of People Who Use Drugs (EKNPUD), in partnership with a number of other advocacy groups and non-profits impacted by the toxic drug crisis, including ANKORS, East Kootenay Addictions Services Society, Ktunaxa Nation, Cranbrook Food Bank, and many others.

"It just shows how far we've come in this community," said Jessica Lamb, one of the founders of EKNPUD. "Four years ago — I've been in this work for four years — there really wasn't a lot of services … the service providers were trying to work together but what I see today is that we're making some progress forward in the relationships that we have with each other and when we have stronger relationships between the service providers, then we're better able to support the people in our community."

"It's baby steps and we're making that progress in our community and it impacts the people who need it most."

Sunday's gathering was many things — a recognition of those who have survived overdose, an opportunity to reflect on the lives of loved ones lost, and a reminder of the dehumanizing impacts that the crisis has had on people who use substances or who are living with an addiction.

It was opened by the Sookeani Singers amid a community barbecue, while other activities included a table and resources for naloxone training, which can be administered to reverse the effects of an overdose, as well as a wooden coffin, where people could write notes to loved ones.

The bandstand pillars were adorned with posters, — some with slogans, others with photos of loved ones who have died from a drug poisoning. One poster had simple images of 10,000 purple hearts in neat rows, signifying the number of fatal overdoses, and a tragic reminder that more hearts were needed to reach the current total of approximately 14,000 deaths.

"That's too many pictures up there, that's Cranbrook. We only have one of the posters up, but there's a set of three posters that have 10,000 hearts and to think that another 4,000 have died since we made that poster is gut-wrenching," said Lamb.

"We've got parents who lost their kids, people who have lost their partners, brothers, sisters and there's no end in sight."

In 2016, the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in response to an increasing number of deaths attributed to a poisoned drug supply.

B.C. Premier David Eby marked the eighth year of the crisis, acknowledging the "catastrophic impact" that it has had over the last decade, while touting government efforts on building out mental health and addictions systems of care.

"Every life taken by this crisis is a loss to our community – they are friends, parents, siblings and children. To the families, friends and loved ones: we see you, we stand with you and we share in your pain," said Eby, in a statement.

"We must also recognize that this crisis has impacts beyond the tragic loss of life. From families and friends to mental-health and front-line workers, there are scores of people who have had to bear witness to the damage done to lives and communities from addiction and drug poisonings.

"We must, every one of us, recognize this emergency for what it is: a health crisis."

Last year set a grim record for overdose deaths in B.C., in Cranbrook and the East Kootenay.

Provincially, there were 2,546 deaths — a 6.7 per cent increase over 2022 — while there were 20 deaths reported in Cranbrook.

There have been over 150 deaths reported in each month for over 20 consecutive months, according to data from the B.C. Coroners Service.

"We hear the stats on the radio, but we're not really correlating that with somebody's kid or somebody's partner and until it happens to you, you might not really understand that pain," said Lamb.

"The stigma is a huge, huge problem in this. We've been told forever that drug users are bad and that they just need to go to treatment and get better. I think it's a lot more complicated than that and there's a lot of negativity around harm reduction right now.

"We can't have harm reduction without recovery and we can't have recovery without harm reduction."

Lamb noted the politicized nature of the crisis, referencing a compassion club organized by the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) in Vancouver that was shut down for selling drug-tested cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

In a study involving 47 people, DULF concluded that enrollment in an unsanctioned compassion club "was associated with reductions in any type of non-fatal overdose as well as overdoses involving the administration of naloxone."

Lamb and EKNPUD have long been advocating for better access to a safe supply.

"We need a safe supply of substances," Lamb said. "We're never going to get people better if we can't just authentically meet them where they're at."

Safe supply has been in the recent provincial news discourse, following a drug bust in Prince George that seized thousands of pills including morphine and hydromorphone, which are part of B.C.'s safe supply program. Critics point to the seizure as evidence that safe supply is being diverted, while government officials pushed back against the claim as "simply not true."

Early last year, the federal government approved an application from the B.C. government to decriminalize possession of 2.5 grams of drugs through an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Critics say decriminalization has led to increased and more visible drug use, while government and advocates note that the exemption decriminalizes people so that they are not entangled in the legal system or burdened with stigma for better outcomes in accessing health and treatment services.

With files from the Canadian Press