International Overdose Awareness Day brings harm reduction to the forefront 

Events in Winnipeg marking International Overdose Awareness Day are calling for regulated drug supply and investment in harm reduction efforts to curb the epidemic of deaths related to toxic drug supply.

APTN News went to one event at the Manitoba Legislative Building where concerned, grieving but hopeful members of the community showed up calling on the provincial government to change its stance on regulating drugs and supervised consumption sites – issues the current Progressive Conservative government has not supported.

The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network was part of the 30 booths educating the public on harm reduction at the event.

Executive director Shohan Illsley, spoke with APTN about the topic.

APTN: Can you tell me why we are here and what’s all happening [at this event]? 

SI: We are here for International Overdose Awareness Day and unfortunately here in Manitoba we’re experiencing a drug poisoning crisis. So, many of us have lost loved ones so we are here today to honour our loved ones that we’ve lost but also to invite people down to come spend some time to honour their grief but to also learn a little bit about harm reduction and how we can better support our relatives who are using substances.

APTN: How does the prohibition of drugs contribute to a toxic drug supply? 

SI: There’s two real big things that prohibition does. One is that it creates stigma around substances, particularly around our relatives who are using substances. In a stigmatized environment, it’s really hard to go and ask for some support around your substance use. The other thing it does is it creates a toxic drug supply, so when prohibition is the policy it means that substances are unregulated… people don’t necessarily know what’s in it, people don’t know the potency of it, so in an unregulated market it means that we’re going to have an increase in deaths due to a drug poisoning.

And that’s what we’ve seen here in Manitoba. Last year we had 418 people die, the year before it was over 400. Since January to March this year, we’ve had 103 people die and in the next month before [Manitoba’s general election], we’ll have another 40 people die. And so really important that drug poisoning or an overdose is actually 100% preventable and we need policies that are going to support that.

APTN: Some people say harm reduction measures like new needles and supervised consumption sites enable people’s drug use. What do you say to that? 

S.I.: Long before we ever gave out harm reduction supplies, new needles, people were using drugs and injecting their drugs. And so, harm reduction strategies really are a strategy to help people to stay safer while they’re using substances. And importantly, safe consumptions sites – we don’t have a safe consumption site here in Manitoba. We are the only province west of Quebec that does not have one but we are fortunate enough to have the Mobile Overdose Prevention Site and that site saves peoples’ lives regularly. So, it allows people an environment where they’re going to use an unregulated toxic supply and if they do have an overdose there’s someone to respond immediately and save their life.

And there’s no documented cases of people dying in overdose prevention sites or safe consumption sites from an overdose. So it enables people to stay alive is what we believe when it comes to harm reduction.

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