Five years after overdose emergency was declared, Penticton recovery groups still pushing for change

5 years of overdose crisis

Casey Richardson

Wednesday marks five years since B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the overdose crisis, but more people are dying than ever. Penticton recovery and overdose awareness groups are still pushing for change, and say the given solutions aren’t making enough of an impact.

“The fact of the matter is that every single overdose death is a policy failure. And we can change policy,” said Desiree Franz, a Penticton outreach worker. “What we’re trying to do is bring acknowledgement to the fact that yes, we've been in this public health emergency for five years, but we haven't seen much change.”

2020 recorded a record for most overdose deaths in single year, seeing a 74 per cent increase over the number of deaths recorded in 2019 bringing the death toll to 1,716. This number equates to 4.7 deaths per day – two deaths per day higher than last year (2.7).

“The numbers are growing and that's really concerning for people like myself who work with people that use substances because, especially with COVID-19, the drug toxicity has been just horrifying and that's why we’re seeing the numbers increase.”

Jerome Abraham, executive director for Discovery House, a Penticton recovery resource society, said the policy decisions so far show a lack of commitment to dealing with the issue.

“It’s a really complicated issue, there’s not just one silver bullet solution...there’s been overdoses going on for a long, long time,” he explained.

“I don’t think the issue started five years ago. The issue started in the 1970 and 80’s in the Downtown Eastside where people with substance abuse issues were marginalized and just sort of shoved to the outskirts of society.”

And simply providing housing to struggling individuals isn’t the answer either.

“We’re not going to fix a 45-50 year old problem with some housing units in the next two to three years,” Abraham adds.

“I think something has got lost in the implementation of the housing first solutions. It’s housing first but not housing only. I think there’s a lot of blame put on the operators of facilities but the funding model that they’re tied to, they can't always provide services that they’d like to.”

Franz and Abraham both point out that people often perceive those who are visible users on the streets as the only substance users, not fully understanding who is actually being killed by overdose.

“They are the ones who are too afraid to identify themselves as substance users. They’re using alone, in their homes and that’s the demographic that's dying more than the visible users,” Franz said. “Destigmatization goes a long way for people to access resources. It makes them not ashamed to say ‘I have a problem and I need support.’”

“I am in recovery myself and I can tell you firsthand that I never wanted to be an addict. That wasn't my goal in life was to have an addiction issue, I was a human being that couldn’t cope because of trauma’s I couldn’t endure as a child.”

Calls for better treatment options, more resources for recovery, mental health and drug decriminalization are at the forefront.

“There’s so many stages...if our country implemented decriminalization and safe supply, which would be easily accessible, because the safe supply we have right now is not accessible. It would be such an astronomical improvement in preventing unnecessary deaths,” Franz said.

Abraham pointed to programs in Europe that have implemented full solutions, like Portugal, where decriminalization policies and harm reduction programmes have proven to lower drug use and deaths.

“I think there’s been a fear of upsetting a certain part of the voting population who still believe addictions are a choice and people just need to suffer it out,” he said.

Moms Stop the Harm South Okanagan and the Penticton and Area Overdose Prevention Society are hosting an online vigil ceremony Wednesday night at the Gyro Park Bandshell, speaking about the past five years, inviting anyone interested in being a part of the event to light a candle and watch the streamed event from home.

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