The B.C. opioid crisis has claimed the lives of hundreds of Kelowna residents, and experts say local policymakers are not doing enough to reduce harm.
“We need great politicians who are willing to save lives,” said Dr. Zachary Walsh, clinical psychologist and professor at UBC Okanagan campus.
He explained that a prescribed safe supply program in Kelowna and the legalization of drugs would prevent “devastating” accidental overdoses from the “poisoned drug supply.”
The toxic drug supply in B.C. is a result of the prevalence of fentanyl, benzodiazepines and similar drugs being hidden in illicit drugs.
Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, said that the toxic drug supply in B.C. is volitile and unpredictable.
“The number one thing we have to do is get a safe supply,” said Walsh.
Prescribed safe supply has been available through the Risk Mitigation Guidance program in cities across B.C. including Vancouver, Vernon, Penticton and Kamloops since 2020, said the BC Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and Interior Health.
Walsh said that the safe supply program needs to be expanded to Kelowna to “keep people alive.”
Interior Health said “in Kelowna we are in the early stages of developing a fentanyl patch program.”
Walsh explained that more needs to be done urgently.
“We have to deal with supply issues,” said Walsh.
He explained that when people are experiencing active addiction they will use whatever is available, even if the supply is unsafe.
Kelowna has drug testing sites, though Walsh suggests that is not enough.
He hopes that programs similar to the popular Risk Mitigation Guidance initiative in Vancouver Coastal Health will be implemented in Kelowna. The program provides people with alternatives to illicit and toxic drugs who are likely to experience drug poisoning and dangerous withdrawal symptoms related to opioids, stimulants, benzodiazepines and alcohol.
The government of B.C. reported that there is no indication that prescribed supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.
“Given the severity of the situation we shouldn’t continue to hold back,” said Walsh.
He said that is imperative that Kelowna provides access to safe drugs for people experiencing substance use disorder and the opportunity for treatment for those looking for help.
“Rapid access to withdrawal management and treatment” are necessary but often unavailable for people in Kelowna, said Carmen Rempel, executive director at the Kelowna Gospel Mission.
She explained that “someone will have a moment of readiness,” to stop or reduce their drug use, and that if resources for withdrawal support and counselling are not available when a person feels ready to seek help, they may not have that feeling of readiness again.
Remple said that in Kelowna people often are forced to wait days, weeks or months before there is an opening at an appropriate treatment center or clinic.
“We need access to treatment,” said Walsh, who added that is important to reduce barriers to help in any way possible.
Additionally, from an economic perspective, Walsh said that no matter the cost of harm reduction strategies, it “pales in comparison to what we are paying for now.”
Walsh said that people need to undo “propaganda and misteaching” of “Just say No” and similar campaigns, that preach abstinence from drugs.
“We need to break down perspectives … and reduce the stigma.”
B.C. has applied to decriminalize small amounts illicit drug possession, an important step in ensuring a safe supply for people who use drugs, said Walsh.
“B.C.’s application to Health Canada to decriminalize people who use drugs is a vital step to keep people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.
This was reiterated by Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions who explained substance use and addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one.
Overdoses can be called in by witnesses or through the Lifeguard app, which allows the drug user to record what substances they are taking, their address and set a timer. If the user doesn’t turn off the timer, it will begin to blare – alerting people nearby – and then call 911 for paramedics or firefighters to respond to the address. Police are not alerted when the call is made.