Thousands have died of drug overdoses since B.C. declared a state of emergency in 2016 – now what?

It’s been six years since British Columbia declared a state of emergency over the number of people dying from drug overdoses – since then, another 7,700 people have died.

“Despite our government investing in addiction treatment and prevention at an unprecedented level, despite this and more we have lost thousands of lives,” says Sheila Malcomson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C.

On June 21, 2019, Glen Rebic, who lived with his mother in Vancouver, went out to visit some friends. He never returned home.

His mother Meredith Dan filed a police report with the Vancouver police.

“The last thing I said to him was ‘have fun and be safe,’” she says.

Four days later, on June 25, Dan received the news she was dreading.

“We saw there was a police car parked outside of the apartment but it had been sitting for a half-hour to 45 minutes so we weren’t sure what it was for,” she tells APTN News. “And sure enough it was two police officers and victims services who were coming to deliver the next of kin notification.

“Without any preface, she said to me ‘well first of all Glenn is dead,’ and I just went down my knees gave out. My niece caught me and then when I regained my composure I got up and yelled at her ‘you need to work on your delivery.’”

Dan later found out that at 2:13 a.m. on June 22, Glenn overdosed and died after accepting a line of what he thought was cocaine. What he didn’t know is that it was laced with fentanyl.

“I miss him every single day,” she says. “I wake up and for a brief second I think he’s sleeping on the couch and the reality that he’s not here hit’s me but for a moment I have hope that he’s not really gone.”

Glenn was an avid skateboarder and was well known and respected in the skate community.

His mother says that when you saw him on the board he was happy, free and living his life doing something he loved.

Something needs to be done

According to the BC Chief Coroner, six people a day like Glenn are dying in the province because of the toxic drug supply.

Making matters worse is they’re discovering more drugs mixed with Benzodiapepine which Naloxone, a drug administered to counter an overdose, has no effect.

Trey Helton, a former addict who now manages the Overdose Prevention Society on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says more needs to be done to help.

“There’s lots of different options that need to be brought about and safe supply is one of them,” he says. “Detox on demand is something that I’d really like to see if someone says ‘hey you know what I’m feeling done and I would like to find a way out’ they shouldn’t have to wait two weeks to get into a detox centre they should be fast-tracked it’s just a very small window.”

B.C. says it’s answering pleas for help.

It’s the first province in Canada to ask the federal government to exempt addicts from being charged under the criminal code for possession of illegal drugs for personal use.

Sen. Larry Campbell, a former coroner in B.C., says the first step is removing the stigma for drug users and wrapping around services to help them.

“This is about keeping people alive. That’s it, that’s the bottom line,” he says. “I’m proud that our province is leading in this. “I’m confident that the federal government will respond favourably.”

A hard habit to kick

Dennis Desjarlais says that he began using drugs in 2010. The father of five says he lost his family because of his addiction and says he feels like there is no way out of this lifestyle.

“I overdosed yesterday and I just did like one dragon my friends were walking by they didn’t even notice it was that quick and that easy I just slid down the wall and dropped right so it is very toxic and powerful like you said- I was not expecting that to happen at all,” he says.

His friends called an ambulance and he was rushed to hospital. He got out today (Wednesday).

APTN: “Will you be using more drugs again today?”

“I already used it,” he says.

Like so many, Desjarlais says he feels helpless to control his addiction.

“Never, never, never get involved with it,” he says. “Man it’s a horrible trap getting addicted to heroin. “It’s the most worse thing anyone could do I wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies.

“I love my wife, and my children it was like a major loss today of my life.”

Waiting for Canada to respond

Meredith Dan, who is from Lil’wat Nation located about 160 km north of Vancouver, says she feels that the painful effects of residential school and intergenerational trauma have a lot to do with addictions.

“I’m the first generation outside of residential school,” she says. “Five out of six of my mother’s siblings died from alcohol-related deaths and so I’ve seen first hand from a lot of my relatives on what it has done and how alcoholism and drug addiction has been prevalent with trying to numb the pain and the effects of the residential school.”

BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says they’re open to trying alternative programs to save lives.

“It is killing people at an alarming rate – is it going to be a perfect model? I don’t think so but I don’t think we need to look for perfect right now,” she says.

In 2021, 1,782 people died of toxic overdoses. More than 71 per cent of those were aged 30 to 59 years old and 79 per cent were men.

The federal government has not yet approved the request from B.C. for the exemption.

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