Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Shoes are hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives. Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Advocates share fear of worsening overdose crisis in 2021, want national safe supply

Between January and June, 86 per cent of opioid overdose deaths were in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario

VANCOUVER — With overdose deaths rising across Canada, advocates for drug users are calling for the implementation of a national safe supply program as part of an effort to save lives.

Failing to do so, they say, will lead to more deaths from overdoses across the country.

A public health emergency was declared in 2016, a year that saw 991 deaths. More than 1,500 people have died in British Columbia from illicit drug overdoses in 2020.

Ontario’s chief coroner’s office estimates 50 to 80 people per week are dying of overdoses.

British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March, allowing doctors and nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs.

Karen Ward, a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, said the concept of the program needs to be expanded across the country.

“It’s like you’re struggling to tread water in a tsunami,” she said in an interview, referring to the number of overdoses in B.C.

Experts say COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation as the supply of illicit drugs became more toxic when the border was closed and more drugs were made or altered in Canada. The pandemic has also impeded access to key harm reduction services, such as supervised consumption sites.

The federal government issued data on Wednesday showing 17,602 people have died from opioid overdoses between January 2016 and June 2020.

Between January and June of this year, 86 per cent of all opioid overdose deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario.

“It will get worse. It will, definitely. Unless we stop talking and do some very specific things,” said Ward. “Let’s do safe supply. Nothing is perfect, but let’s find ways to prescribe in your community, in your area, right away. Or it will get worse.”

Along with a national safe supply program, Ward argues decriminalization is something governments should be considering.

It would mean police wouldn’t charge someone caught with a small amount of drugs and they would not seize the substance.

She is also critical of the scope of B.C.’s safe supply program, arguing health professionals need to be more willing to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives.

“We need a variety of ways to access the health benefits that we have decided are necessary,” Ward said.

The federal government announced $9.5 million in funding for four safe supply pilot projects in Ontario in September, but advocates say that the small size of the project doesn’t do enough.

Last month, Vancouver council voted unanimously to ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was unavailable for an interview, but her office sent a statement saying it is reviewing Vancouver’s proposal.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the ongoing opioid crisis. We have lost too many Canadians to overdose and all levels of government must redouble our efforts to save lives,” she said in the statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September that he supported safe supply but maintained his stance against drug decriminalization.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, a professor at the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, said more support is needed for safe supply programs and decriminalization efforts.

“Safe supply, to me, is the only real practical thing to do,” he said in an interview.

It’s frustrating to see governments and public health agencies not put as much effort as they could into saving the lives of drug users, said Tyndall, who used to head B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control and worked to launch an opioid vending machine in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“I’m pretty pessimistic,” he said on what the next year holds for drug users. “The chance of you overdosing from street drugs are probably higher than they were five years ago … we haven’t really made any significant changes that have made people safer.”

Zoe Dodd, a co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said governments need to understand the wider impact that overdoses are having.

“If we don’t seriously address the overdose crisis, we will lose a workforce,” she said.

Along with safe supply and decriminalization, more support is needed for people who work and volunteer at overdose prevention sites.

Safe supply, combined with drug decriminalization, is needed to truly make a difference, Dodd said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020.

overdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

City of Red Deer says its roundabouts have sharply reduced the number of injury collisions at a pair of busy intersections. Alberta Transportation wants to incorporate five roundabouts into plans to twin Highway 11 from Sylvan Lake to Rocky Mountain House. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Highway 11 roundabouts will increase safety based on Red Deer’s experience

Injury collisions sharply reduced at roundabout intersections in city

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
One new COVID-19 death in Red Deer, Alberta under 10,000 active cases

Alberta reported an additional 643 COVID-19 cases Friday. The province now has… Continue reading

About 110 students from Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools participated in March for Life rally in Edmonton May 9. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer high school has COVID-19 case

St. Joseph High School in Red Deer confirmed a positive COVID-19 case… Continue reading

Lacombe High School logo.
Two more COVID-19 cases at Lacombe Composite High School

Lacombe Composite High School confirmed two more positive COVID-19 cases at the… Continue reading

World Juniors’ referee Mike Langin makes a called during the Canada vs. Slovakia at the 2021 World Junior Championship at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Dec. 27, 2020. (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada)
Former Sylvan Lake man lives his dream at World Junior Championships

Mike Langin was one the 25 Canadian officials who worked during the tournament

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

There are two confirmed COVID-19 cases at Red Deer College. Photo by Mamta Lulla/Advocate staff
Central Albertans were promised a university

Central Albertans were promised a university

FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron sits for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, in this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
Hank Aaron, baseball’s one-time home run king, dies at 86

Hank Aaron, baseball’s one-time home run king, dies at 86

Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson (55) passes the ball around Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Powell, Raptors regroup after blowing lead, beat Heat 101-81

Powell, Raptors regroup after blowing lead, beat Heat 101-81

Tavares scores winner on power play, Leafs beat Oilers 4-2

Tavares scores winner on power play, Leafs beat Oilers 4-2

David Shoemaker, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, speaks during the Olympic Partnership kick off event at the Sobey's office in Mississauga, Ont. on Monday, October 7, 2019. Shoemaker says the IOC remains committed to staging the Summer Games in Tokyo this summer.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
Canada’s Olympic athletes try to tune out reports six months from Games

Canada’s Olympic athletes try to tune out reports six months from Games

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley lifts the Voyageurs Cup after beating Vancouver Whitecaps 5-2 to win the Canadian Championship Final in Toronto on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Forge FC-Toronto FC Canadian Championship final to be played before April 6

Forge FC-Toronto FC Canadian Championship final to be played before April 6

Canada's Penny Oleksiak reacts after her heat of the women's 50m butterfly at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Friday, July 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lee Jin-man
Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse among six swimmers named early to Canadian Olympic team

Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse among six swimmers named early to Canadian Olympic team

Ontario skip Glenn Howard watches a rock as they play Newfoundland and Labrador in draw 15 action at the Tim Hortons Brier curling championship at Mile One Centre in St. John's on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Curling Canada has decided to use the national ranking system as its selection criteria for the final wild-card berths at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canadian rankings to be used to determine final wild-card spots at Scotties and Brier

Canadian rankings to be used to determine final wild-card spots at Scotties and Brier

Most Read