The rise in drug overdose fatalities is continuing across the Central Okanagan so far this year. Imaged Credit: Contributed

IH chair: The drugs are here, we need intelligent approach

Interior Health sees legalized drug consumption sites as one solution.

The wildfires across B.C.’s Interior this summer have drawn a response of manpower and resources to help protect people’s homes.

But there is another wildfire of sorts spreading across the Okanagan, a rising drug overdose death rate, where the response is very different.

Unlike dumping retardant or water on a forest fire, dealing with the new realities of drug abuse, complicated by the introduction of the deadly drug derivative fentanyl and the related carfentanil, is forcing health authorities to rethink how to combat drug addiction.

Those complexities were discussed by the Interior Health board at its regular meeting Tuesday morning, after the board directors received a drug overdose death update with some startling statistics.

Illicit drug overdose deaths continued to escalate in Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton, according to the latest BC Coroner’s Service statistics.

In May, there were 24 deaths reported within the IH region, which is the second highest monthly fatality count since December 2016.

The number of OD deaths in Kelowna for this year is projected to be 80 per cent higher than in 2016, with projections for Vernon and Penticton seeing double the number of deaths compared to 2016.

Chris Mazurkewich, president and CEO of Interior Health, said radical new approaches are needed to stem the drug overdose tide.

“We can’t keep doing the same things and expect to see different results. What we’ve done in the past obviously hasn’t worked,” said Mazurkewich, further suggesting that the much-touted war on drugs in the U.S. has been “a fiasco.”

IH board chair John O’Fee cited the analogy between legalization of alcohol and potentially doing the same for drug consumption services as an inevitable reality that should be encouraged.

IH has already received approval from Health Canada to provide a safe injection service from mobile units established in Kelowna and Kamloops.

He said legalizing alcohol has since created a host of social issue consequences, but nobody dies anymore from drinking illegal liquor. That same mode of thinking, he says, is needed to address drug overdose fatalities.

“The drugs are here so the sooner we acknowledge that reality and work from that basis point, the better off we will all be in finding solutions to deal with that reality,” O’Fee said.

“It is laughable to think that somehow we can choke off the supply of drugs. That’s not realistic. We need to take a more intelligent approach.”

Dr. Silvina Mema, medical health officer for IH, said the health region is reaching out to find strategies to address the drug overdose issue that involve various stakeholders in communities they serve across southern B.C.

“This not just a medical health issue, it is a social policy issue that involves other players in a community all working together to find solutions,” said Mema, touching on issues such as affordable housing, poverty, unemployment, bullying in school, racism and crime.

She said the City of Kamloops took the initiative to form a local task force to seek local solutions to its drug overdose epidemic involving local police and social service agencies, while the Pathways agency in Penticton has sought out dialogue from local community groups to address the issue.

While the focus tends to be on educating youth about the perils of drug abuse, the drug overdose deaths are actually more associated with the 35 to 50 age group, the board was told.

IH board director Patricia Dooley, from Nelson, said that statistic reflects two issues for her—over-prescription of painkiller opiate medications and dealing with traumatic events that occur in people’s lives.

“You can have it all. A good job, good family, nice house…and still end up going down that path in life,” Dooley said.

Staff were asked to provide a more detailed profile behind the growing number of overdose deaths within the health region for the next board meeting in September, as IH director Renee Wasylyk, from Kelowna, said there is a lot of “misinformation out there about what this problem actually looks like” and who is being affected by it.

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