Vancouver's Downtown Eastside sees 'record-breaking' 45 overdose incidents in one day

In October 2021, British Columbia's submission to Health Canada considered 'illicit drug poisoning the leading cause of death amongst British Columbians aged 19 to 39.'

Eastside Vancouver observed 'record-breaking' 45 overdose incidents in one day
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According to first responders, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside received a whopping 45 overdose calls on March 22 — more than double that of a typical day and a new daily record.

"It's an overwhelming number for us," said Keith Stewart, assistant chief with the Vancouver Fire Rescue Service.

B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) attributed the inflated call volume to more toxic and dangerous illicit drugs available for widespread consumption.

"The drugs are being cut with so many different things at this time," said Stewart. "We're seeing some negative effects."

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, contends that at-risk residents have to worry about more than fentanyl now.

"There are dangerous drugs added into it that don't respond to naloxone, and don't respond to the usual ways of saving people's lives. So it's worse than ever," said McBain, who claims safe access to users could save lives.

Outreach worker Kali Sedgemore observed more xylazine, a tranquillizer veterinarians use for anesthesia, and benzodiazepines causing overdoses among users in recent years.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions confirmed the presence of xylazine as a "cutting agent" in the illicit drug supply.

"It can complicate the response to opioid poisoning," said the ministry. "It's vitally important to know how to access an overdose prevention or safe consumption site and carry naloxone, which can save a life."

"What would happen if it was accessible, low-barrier, and people could trust where [they could] get a regulated supply? Then what would happen over time is the marketplace of organized crime, and the production of these illicit toxic supplies would go down," added McBain.

Giuseppe Ganci, a recovering former cocaine and ecstasy user now helping to treat drug addicts, said the province's move to temporarily decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA, and meth would not save lives.

Health Canada granted B.C. a subsection 56(1) exemption for three years under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who use drugs.

"I've never met a person who uses drugs, including myself, that didn't get help because they felt 'stigmatized,'" said Ganci. He claimed addicts use drugs and don't get treatment because they "like" drugs and "don't want to stop using."

As a former user of alcohol and marijuana at 13 and, by 16, hard drugs, the front-line worker said he could have died at any time, having spent over 20 years in and out of recovery and relapse cycles.

He said it took severe, negative consequences from his addiction to convince him to seek help through a residential treatment program.

"I was going to lose my job. I got caught [using] at work," added Ganci, who accessed an occupational health service through work that offered a one-year drug rehab program.

"Decriminalization does not stop overdoses — dissuasion does, prevention does."

However, the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions contends, "[decriminalization] will break down the barriers that prevent people from reaching out for help and create new pathways to life-saving services." 

The ministry cited, "different forms of decriminalization have been implemented in many other jurisdictions, including Portugal, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Oregon."

According to government statistics, more people died from drug overdoses than homicide, car accidents, suicide or COVID combined. 

In July 2020, overdose deaths reached 175, marking five consecutive months of a worrying increase in such incidents. The province confirmed 203 COVID deaths during the same period.

In October 2021, the province's submission to Health Canada considered "illicit drug poisoning the leading cause of death amongst British Columbians aged 19 to 39."

"Criminalization drives people to hide their drug use and is often used alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply — using alone can be fatal," said the ministry. "Drug use is a public health matter — not a criminal justice." 

In 2022, the B.C. Coroners Service recorded 2,272 deaths in the province due to toxic, illegal drugs, up from 272 fatal drug overdoses in 2001.

B.C. first responders have documented over 8,500 calls for overdose poisoning province-wide this year, with an average of six deaths daily from illicit drug use. 

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