British Columbia is skirting federal restrictions around safe injection sites by opening a number of “overdose prevention sites” as the province continues to grapple with the opioid crisis that has put Vancouver’s morgues at capacity.
All told, thousands of people are expected to succumb to opioid overdoses across the country this year.
The B.C. facilities, meant to provide a safe space for people to consume illicit drugs, do not have official approval from Health Canada, but things are so bad, the provincial health minister says they can’t afford to wait.
“Despite training thousands of individuals to recognize overdoses and reverse them with naloxone, and taking many other actions across the health and public safety sectors, we have not yet been successful in stemming the death toll,” a spokesperson for the minister wrote to VICE News in an email.
The spokesperson added that overdose prevention sites differ from supervised injection sites because staff there don’t supervise people as they do drugs. Instead, they monitor for signs of overdose and provide “rapid intervention if overdose does occur.”
Two overdose prevention sites, as well as a mobile medical unit, will open in Vancouver today, followed by several more in Surrey and Victoria in the coming weeks.
Due to intense federal restrictions implemented by the previous Conservative government around opening supervised injection sites, Vancouver has the only two officially sanctioned ones in Canada. But having access to these sites has become crucial as the vast majority of the city’s drug supply is believed to be tainted with the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, and it’s making its way into other provinces.
A pair of grassroots drug advocates have opened two unsanctioned injection tents in back alleys of Vancouver’s downtown eastside in order to curb drug overdose deaths while applications for permanent sites are pending. In the tents —which usually consist of just a few folding tables and chairs — drug users can get clean needles and other supplies. Local law enforcement has said they would not interfere with the illegal sites.
Staff at the tents recently told reporters they’ve administered the opioid overdose antidote naloxone more than 200 times over the last three months.
British Columbia is the first and only province to have declared a public health emergency of the overdose crisis. Statistics for this year up until the end of October show that more than 622 people in BC have died from opioid-related overdoses. There were 510 such deaths in 2015.
The city of Vancouver alone saw more than 6,000 drug overdoses this year, more than 1,600 of which were linked to opioids, according to new numbers released this week by frontline workers.
Things have become so dire that Vancouver’s morgues are filled to capacity with the bodies of drug overdose victims, and funeral homes have had to take the unprecedented step of storing bodies.
Federal health minister Jane Philpott has vowed to make it easier for cities to apply to open safe injection sites, though she has yet to say how or when that will be done.
“I’ve made it very clear to my department that there should be no unnecessary barrier for communities who want to open supervised consumption sites,” Philpott told the House of Commons in September.