Last month, the toxic drug crisis in B.C. hit a grim milestone. Since the declaration of a public health emergency seven years ago, 10,000 people have died in the province from illicit drugs.
On Aug. 31, just two weeks after data about the toxic drug crisis was released by the province, people around the world marked International Overdose Awareness Day — an annual campaign to remember those who have died due to overdose and put an end to future deaths. The day also offers a chance to cut through stigma by talking about drug use and harm reduction and acknowledge the grief of those who lost a loved one to overdose.
In downtown Duncan’s Charles Hoey Park, tables were set up by the Cowichan Community Action Team as part of an event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day. Purple, a colour associated with the day, was seen on T-shirts, tablecloths, signs, ribbons and more. Community members stopped by the event to learn more about the poisoned drug crisis, light a candle for a loved one and receive naloxone training before picking up a free kit.
The Cowichan Community Action Team has a goal to improve the wellbeing of people who have lived or living experience of substance use. It does so by working to reduce stigma around the topic, raising awareness in the community, partnering with community outreach providers to fight the drug poisoning crisis and connecting people who use drugs and their loved ones with support.
“A lot of people don’t seek the supports that they could because they’re afraid of the stigma and judgement,” said Leah Vance, coordinator for the Cowichan Community Action Team. “And for a lot of people grieving loved ones as well, there’s that stigma where they feel they can’t talk about what happened.”
Vance said the annual event in Duncan provides a safe space for people to talk about substance use, harm reduction and loss. It also connects people with community resources and supports, as well as with people who have lived or living experience with substance use.
“We’re really just trying to reach as many people as we can on this topic,” Vance said.
Talk about it
Handwritten posters at the event in Duncan shared information about the illicit drug poisoning crisis and encouraged people to learn more about harm reduction and Naloxone. One poster leaning against a table said “Talk About It” in large lettering next to purple ribbons.
Tracy is a peer — someone with lived or living experience with substance use — with the Cowichan Community Action Team. She sat next to the poster and spoke with community members who stopped by her table.
Twelve years ago, Tracy slipped and fell in her bathroom after having a bath and hit her head. She woke up one week later in the hospital with a morphine addiction and no memory of her life and children, she said. Not being able to hug her kids or give them the attention and love they needed was very difficult for her, as was the pain from her injury.
Tracy began coping with her pain and trauma through substance use, she said, because the substances were able to give her some peace. Eventually, one of her children moved in with their father while the other went into the care of the province and Tracy lost her housing. She lived on the streets for over a decade until she moved into temporary housing at the Ramada Duncan more than two years ago.
“And it’s a good thing I was put in there because I wouldn’t be alive today. I found out through there — because I got medical care — I had cancer, but I got rid of it,” Tracy said. “Now I’m on the proper meds, I’ve got a home, I have a job.”
Now, Tracy lives in supportive housing and said she’s finally beginning to feel like she has a home. A proud smile spread across her face as she said she’s been sober for one year and four months. Being able to talk about drug use and seek support has been life changing for Tracy. She hopes being vocal about her experiences will help reduce stigma around substance use and the illicit drug poisoning crisis, and get people talking about it. She said helping to reduce the stigma around drug use and the illicit drug poisoning crisis is also very important to her because it eliminates barriers and connects people instead.
“When the average citizen walks past a homeless person sitting on the ground or on the sidewalk, they make all kinds of judgements,” Tracy said. “But they have no clue how that person got there.”
With support from the Community Action Team and RCMP, Tracy is now spearheading a project called Building Bridges. The project brings local police officers and unhoused people together to have a conversation and learn from each other over coffee.
“When the uniforms come off, those police officers are just like you and me and they deserve to go home safe, just like we deserve to be safe at the end of the day,” Tracy said as she turned to answer questions from someone visiting her table at the event. “We’re all human after all.”
Getting Naloxone into everyone’s first aid kits
A bowl of oranges sat on another one of the tables at the event in Duncan. Right next to them were little, black, zip-up soft cases with a cross on them and the word “naloxone” inside the cross.
The oranges were being used by Cowichan Community Action Team volunteers to demonstrate how to administer naloxone through injection. Community members could watch the demonstration and try injecting the oranges themselves before receiving a free naloxone kit to take with them.
Naloxone is a medication that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Administering it helps to restore normal breathing for people experiencing an opioid overdose and gives them time to wait for medical help. It is a lifesaving medication.
“Naloxone isn’t going to solve the poisoned drug crisis but it’s good to have to keep people alive and it’s excellent to have on hand because it simply blocks opioid receptors in the brain. It doesn’t do any harm,” said Cailey Foster, peer coordinator with the Cowichan Community Action Team. “We’re trying to normalize it and give it to people to have in their first aid kits, backpacks or purses because you really never know when you’ll need it.”
Foster connects with people who have lived or living experience of substance use to “be part of a solution,” she said. Part of her work involves attending public events, like International Overdose Awareness Day. She said the goal is to make Naloxone a common item in people’s first aid kits.
Through the Cowichan Community Action Team, Foster and peers formed the streetsmart outreach team. They pick up needles and garbage and offer harm reduction supplies to people who need them. Since January 2022, the team has saved six lives while doing rounds by administering Naloxone, according to Vance.
There are options
As Foster spoke about the importance of Naloxone, Victor Murphy took a seat at the booth. Murphy is also a peer. He said that if there’s one thing people should know about, it’s Naloxone.
“You never know what a person’s situation is. But if you have something that can help them, yeah, it could make things a little easier,” Murphy said.
He also said it’s important for people to be aware of the poisoned drug crisis in B.C. and Canada. Being non-judgemental and working to save lives is key, he said.
According to the province, 90 per cent of overdose deaths happen when people use drugs alone. That statistic is one of the reasons why Foster said she became involved with the Cowichan Community Action Team — she wants to spread awareness about options that are available to prevent an overdose or overdose death.
The Lifeguard App, launched by the province in 2020, connects people with emergency responders if they are unresponsive. People who are about to use drugs can use the app to record the type of substance they’re about to use and their location. A timer — which can be paused or extended by the user — is then set. Once the timer ends, the app will cause the device to sound an alarm, flash a light and vibrate. If the individual using the app cannot turn off the alarm, an automatic call is placed to 9-1-1.
Foster also pointed to safer supply options that can be made available through clinics, as well as resources for harm reduction and overdose prevention that can be found locally.
“I would love for people just to drop judgements and stigma so that [substance use] can be talked about, too,” Foster said. “Just to be able to help someone reach out and know that it’s OK to talk about it and that there are options available.”
Safer supply saves lives
Vance said it’s important for people to understand that safer supply initiatives don’t mean handing out free drugs. She also noted there’s always an inherent risk when taking drugs, even if they’re considered to be safer.
But with the high amounts of toxic drug supply on the streets and deaths from the illicit drug poisoning crisis now reaching 10,000, she said the option to take safer supply drugs is the difference between life and death.
“Either way, people will do drugs,” Vance said. “We’re trying to offer support for people to do it safer, and that’s what harm reduction is all about.”
She noted that “dead people can’t seek support or go into recovery” and said saving lives is the first step to support people. But in order to really make a difference, Vance said more needs to be done. Combatting the toxic drug crisis will take collaboration and compassion, she said, as well as wraparound supports that offer safe places to live, medical care, mental health care and more.
“We need to keep in mind that these are people’s loved ones. This is someone’s son, daughter, best friend, father,” Vance said. “We just need to try and have that human compassion. Naloxone training on its own is not enough to combat this crisis … we need to work together. And that’s a big part of Overdose Awareness Day.”
Resources are available
The Cowichan Community Action Team leads an in-person grief support group for peers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Local grief support is also available through Cowichan Hospice, which can be reached at 250-701-4242 or through its website.
Cowichan Tribes members can access grief support through Kwun’atsustul Counselling, at 250-746-6184.
The Cowichan Community Action Team compiles local resources for harm reduction, substance use services, meals, shelter, counselling and other support. The 2021 guide is available here, although some resources may be out of date. The team is working on updating the guide, and a partial list of updated resources is available here.