Content warning: This story discusses drug poisoning and death. Please read with care for your own well-being.
Beyond the headlines, beyond the noise of constant ambulances, many in our region are feeling the very real impacts of BC’s poised drug supply. Thousands have died, and every life lost leaves deep craters in our communities.
As the high number of overdoses continue, it’s more important than ever to talk about the overdose crisis1 and what can be done to save lives.
Read on to learn:
Facts you can’t ignore about the overdose crisis
Who is most affected by a poisoned drug supply
Many of us know someone who has passed away, or a family that has lost a loved one from an overdose. But we might not fully understand why it’s happening, or how we got here.
The reasons that people use drugs are complicated, but their actions are often an attempt to cope with deep trauma or pain that they’ve experienced in their lives.
When it comes to understanding overdose, it’s important to note that British Columbians aren’t dying because they’ve taken too much of a substance. It’s because they aren’t aware of the lethal, usually synthetic substances that are cut into the drugs they think they are taking.
So, who are the people most affected by drug toxicity?
With a deadly drug supply that’s only worsening as the years go by, we’re seeing that an overdose can happen to anyone. And tragically, it’s affecting more of our youth and young people.
Why are people still dying from drug overdose?
There are several key factors that are powering the overdose crisis and making it difficult for individuals and support agencies to stem the tide of harm.
1. Canada’s drug supply is becoming increasingly more deadly
In the last decade, the demand for unregulated and illicit opioids has increased. More than a decade ago, drug dealers started to add a powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl, into their heroin to make its sale more profitable. People introduced to fentanyl through heroin became addicted to the synthetic opioid, driving up demand for ‘pure’ fentanyl.
Fentanyl is still the primary driver in unregulated drug deaths — but there’s growing concern about synthetic cannabinoids, benzodiazepines, and psychoactive substances showing up in unregulated drug samples. Benzodiazepines, usually used as a sedative, are the latest synthetic material that’s being cut into drugs along with fentanyl and can increase the risk of an overdose. The mixing of animal tranquilizer xylazine into drug supplies is also on the rise: first introduced to extend the effects of opioids, the drug isn’t approved for human use, and poses risks including abscesses and blackouts.
Researchers say that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone using drugs to know what exactly they are taking, or how much of which substance is in what they’ve been sold.
2. Synthetic drug manufacturing has become easier
New synthetic drugs are appearing on the market all the time. Many of these substances had their genesis as failed pharmaceutical research, so all the information on how to synthesize these drugs is readily available online. It’s more cost-effective and easier to produce them than their organic counterparts like heroin, and technologies like the dark web and cryptocurrencies have made it easier to sell the drugs anonymously online.
3. Many new synthetic drugs can’t be reversed by naloxone
Naloxone has played a major role to date in mitigating and reversing fentanyl overdoses. An opioid antagonist, naloxone can be administered to someone experiencing an overdose to temporarily block the effects of opioids. However, naloxone is ineffective against many new synthetic drugs and additives like xylazine, meaning that people who overdose unknowingly on these other unregulated substances are at higher risk of fatal outcomes.
What can we do about the overdose epidemic?
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless with the sheer vastness of this crisis. So what can we do? What practical, meaningful action can we take together in our own circles of influence to respond to this drug poisoning crisis?
1. Support and grieve with families
Every person we’ve lost these past seven years has left a hole in our hearts, our communities, and our neighbourhoods.
This August 31st, International Overdose Awareness Day, let’s:
- Join with grieving families to publicly mourn those we’ve lost.
- Create spaces for grief and sadness that are free of guilt or shame.
- Let those who have or currently use drugs know that they are loved and valued beyond measure.
2. Reach out to your loved ones
So far in 2023, 80% of unregulated drug toxicity deaths happened inside, where people often use alone and in private. Stigma is preventing people from seeking the help that they need, especially those who are most likely to die of toxic drugs:
“Stigma is killing people in this province.” — Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer, Vancouver Coastal Health
In a report by the Select Standing Committee on Health, Dr. Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, stated that “we don’t care about people who use substances in the same way we care about people with other health conditions and we need to change that.”
It’s more important now than ever to reach out to include those around you, no matter what they might be struggling with. You may not even know if someone you love is struggling with addiction or substance misuse, but just letting them know you care and are there for them can go a long way.
Together, we can help destigmatize drug use so that people won’t feel like they need to hide away and use in secret, putting themselves at risk of a fatal overdose.
3. Advocate for holistic and transformative policy solutions
One of the best ways to save lives from the poisoned drug supply is to advocate for true change and transformation.
Perhaps there’s a government or nonprofit policy approach that’s resonating with you. Maybe you feel strongly about expanding access to safe supply, making take-home naloxone more available, upping detox beds, or increasing recovery-centred permanent, affordable housing options. Or maybe you are passionate about prevention and education as key factors in limiting and de-escalating the drug toxicity crisis.
Learn more about the issues impacting your community, like the opioid crisis and homelessness, and what you can do to help. Sign up for our email updates below.
1 A note on terminology: while “overdose” continues to be a commonly used term, organizations including the B.C. Centre on Substance Use in Vancouver have begun to include the terms “drug poisoning” or “drug toxicity” to highlight the fact that drug users aren’t being surprised by too much of a drug, but rather by contaminated supply. In order to speak clearly while reducing stigma against people who use these drugs, we use all of the above terms in this article.
5 We want to acknowledge that it’s not always possible for families to locate or contact loved ones who are living with addiction. If you’re not able to reach the people you love, networks like Moms Stop the Harm can be helpful places to hear stories like yours and receive support.
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