As B.C. nears its sixth anniversary of declaring a public health emergency due to overdoses, conversation in the Penticton community returns to issues of unsafe supply and serious stigma with those who use drugs.
At the beginning of March, after a record-breaking 2,224 drug toxicity deaths in 2021, B.C.'s chief coroner set a deadline for May 9 for the government to create a safer supply policy in collaboration with the BC Centre for Disease Control and the BC Centre on Substance Use.
"In Penticton, specifically, the biggest thing is I'm seeing lots of higher levels of fentanyl in the drug supply as well as ongoing benzodiazepines being present in the fentanyl samples. There's some cross contamination in the methamphetamine samples as well," Amy MacDonald, licensed practical nurse and fourier transform infrared (FTIR) drug-checking technician at ASK Wellness Society shared.
Fentanyl, which is an opioid, can put the user into an overdose when too much is consumed, MacDonald explained. Benzodiazepines only complicate this further as a sedative.
"We don't always understand how they're going to affect the human body. There's lack of research for them and as far as resuscitating somebody, it can be really hard to identify those symptoms and know how to save somebody's life."
MacDonald's work as a drug-checking technician for the South Okanagan helps identify what different components are in a drug sample and if there is a high risk of overdose.
"It's a great service that Ask Wellness was just able to implement recently. We've seen the successes in Kamloops where we've been operating it for a couple of years, just that increase in connection with those that are using substances. And Interior Health has been able to issue alerts that my machine has been capturing," she added.
A small sample of the drug is tested, either with the client sitting with the technician or the client can drop off a sample and the results are sent later on.
Dr. Carol Fenton, a medical health officer with Interior Health, explained that when the toxic drug crisis was declared six years ago, there was some progress made on turning the situation around and opening several harm reduction services.
"We saw a decrease in deaths in 2019. But all of that progress was lost with the beginning of the pandemic and we've seen progressively worse statistics and more deaths," she added.
"Recently, we're seeing the highest numbers we've ever seen before."
While IH works to expand access to mental health and addiction programming, harm reduction programming, including supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites, the missing piece comes down to replacing the toxic drugs that are circulating.
"But it is very challenging," Fenton said."Because of the urgent recommendations from the coroner's report that has called upon both health and government partners to implement both a medical and non medical model of safe supply, that is the definitive intervention that will prevent these deaths. So we're very much looking forward to seeing what those plans look like."
The resource centres will continue to push for ending the stigma surrounding those who may use substances.
"In some of the ways that we depict people that use substances, really breaking down the barrier, that these are human beings. These are people that we love and people that we care about. And it is not a choice to have an addiction. It's a mental health issue, and something that needs to be taken seriously as a community even as small as Penticton," MacDonald said.
"The stigma piece is the most challenging I think because it reduces the willingness of communities to host really important and life saving interventions. It reduces the likelihood that people will access life saving interventions," Fenton added. "It's not a character flaw to use the substances."
Several non-profit organizations in Penticton are planning to hold an event on April 14, marking the six-year anniversary of the crisis, to share recourse and increase public awareness.
"I think getting the public to really acknowledge that this is a crisis that is happening and we can't shove it under the rug," MacDonald stated. "Open your minds to the fact that this opioid drug toxicity crisis is affecting our community and we're losing the ones that we love if we don't do anything to change it."