Overdoses in Vancouver Have Reached Over 6,000 This Year—and It Isn’t Even Over Yet

Morgues in the city are now frequently reaching capacity due to fentanyl-related deaths.

by Allison Tierney
Dec 7 2016, 8:38pm

People carry a coffin to remember those who have died due to ODs on Overdose Awareness Day in the Downtown Eastside. Photo by CP/Darryl Dyck

British Columbia is one of the provinces that's been most affected by the opioid crisis in Canada, and today, new numbers shed light on just how dire the situation is in its most populated city, Vancouver. Between January 1 and November 26 of this year, Vancouver Coastal Health emergency departments have reported 6,016 illicit or unknown drug ODs. Of those, 1,679 were recorded as opioid overdoses.

So far this year, 124 of those overdoses in Vancouver have resulted in deaths; at least 620 have died due to ODs in BC. Now, morgues in the city are frequently reaching capacity due to overdose deaths caused by fentanyl, according to BC Coroners Service.

For Munroe Craig, who is the cofounder of the Vancouver-based harm reduction group Karmik, overdoses continuing to rise in the city has been tough to witness.

"We're all in a similar state of disbelief and disgust at the lack of support from larger governing bodies to combat the current fentanyl crisis," Craig told VICE. Craig said that some major obstacles in combating the crisis are stigma and drug policy.

READ MORE: We Asked Experts How to Solve the Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis has also personally affected Craig. "I have people messaging me up to three times per week telling me they have someone who has passed away. I feel kind of like grim reaper at times," Craig said. "I just found out someone I know passed away yesterday—it never gets easier but more familiar... Every single person I lose motivates me to keep on."

Earlier this year in April, British Columbia declared a public health emergency over drug overdoses—the first ever of its kind. Though other provinces, notably Alberta and Ontario, have also had major issues with drug overdose deaths during the opioid crisis, they have yet to follow suit with similar public health action. Last month, the federal government held its first-ever national summit to address the opioid crisis that has taken thousands of lives across the country in the past few years.

"There are positive pieces to this: There has been an increase in public awareness and an increase in desires for more supports; there are people talking, and that's the first step," Craig said.

Karmik has participated in several kinds of efforts to take action in response to the opioid crisis, including increased offerings of naloxone training. Others groups and individuals in the city have also been taking part in harm reduction efforts to combat what seems like a never-ending, insurmountable problem. Notably, the city has the first safe injection site in North America, Insite, where no one has died of an overdose since it was founded in 2003. In addition to official harm reduction groups like Karmik, unofficial ones like a back-alley tent serving as an injection site have cropped up to stem the destruction bootleg fentanyl is causing. Despite the efforts of groups like these, overdoses continue to rise.

Though the Downtown Eastside is a major hub for drug use and most of the reported drug overdoses in the city have occurred there this year, the contamination of non-opioid recreational drugs like cocaine cut with fentanyl, are causing all types of drug users to feel vulnerable.

"People are scared. They are anxious... People are dying, and in general, those who choose to use substances have told me they feel targeted," Craig said. "Stigma is where so much of the work still needs to be done, stigma and drug policy; we need to get it together."

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