Penticton recovery groups still pushing for change eight years after B.C.'s overdose emergency was declared

A 'very dangerous' time

Casey Richardson

Gaps in a full continuum of care, mental health resources, accessibility to safe spaces and affordable housing are what Penticton recovery groups attribute to stalling progress on the overdose crisis in B.C.

Sunday marks eight years since the province declared a public health emergency due to the overdose crisis and toxic supply, but more people are dying than ever.

Desiree Surowski, cofounder of Penticton Area Overdose Prevention Society (P+OPS), said that while recent numbers from the BC Coroners Service show a slight decrease for the Interior, the overall numbers show a lack of commitment to dealing with the issue.

“We need a full continuum of service in every community, to support people because there's a lot of services in the South Okanagan, that people have to go to other communities to access, and there's waitlists, and there's a lot of communities that don't even have basic harm reduction facilities,” she said.

“I have a ton of people who enter my services that would go to treatment tomorrow if I had a spot for them. So yeah, you do need more treatment beds, but until all those treatment beds aren't filled or there's an empty one, we do need my service, which is the one that keeps them alive.”

P+OPS works as a mobile overdose prevention site and hands out survival equipment, water, and coffee, while also connecting people to resources.

The province-wide rate of death for the first two months of 2024 was 40.1 per 100,000 residents, which is below the record numbers reported in 2023 but still nearly twice the rate recorded in 2016, the year the public-health emergency was first declared.

This equates to six people dying per day in B.C. from toxic, unregulated drugs in February.

“Every year it just seems like everyone reflects on the people they've lost,” Blaine Russell, operations manager for Discovery House, a Penticton recovery resource society said. “We've lost a lot of alumni this year, to the overdose crisis, to the toxic drug supply.”

“We definitely see there's a problem out there,” added Brent Rowland, program coordinator with the house.

“Many of the guys that come into our house have lost people that are close to them. We understand that it's very dangerous out there right now. And I think most British Columbians are really concerned.”

Safe supply program failure?

Eyes are on B.C.’s safe-supply program, which is receiving mounting criticism after the province’s auditor general, Michael Pickup released two independent audits on government programs aimed at curbing the death toll from the toxic drug crisis.

Pickup's office released a separate report on the government's supervised consumption services and the first phase of the prescribed safer supply program, launched amid the crisis that has killed more than 14,000 people since a public health emergency was declared in B.C. in 2016.

Pickup's audit of safer supply found that ministries have not made significant progress in tackling its "most challenging barriers," such as rural access to the program, healthcare providers' hesitancy about prescribing the drugs and whether the drugs being offered were appropriate.

Surowski said she also has issues with the program.

“I have always said that the safe supply program that's been running is not what safe supply should be. I feel like there are flaws in it. And I think the flaws are stemmed from the fact that they're not going all in the way that they should be,” she said.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, recently both claimed that drugs from the safe-supply program were being diverted into the rest of Canada, which British Columbia's solicitor general and the RCMP said there is no evidence of.

RCMP in Prince George recently seized thousands of pills including morphine and hydromorphone, two drugs that are part of B.C.'s program offering prescription alternatives to people at risk of overdose from consuming toxic street drugs.

“Diversion is a really [big] catchphrase right now. 'Oh, they're all being diverted,’” Surowski said.

“They're not all being diverted. That's not true. But when you offer someone say, a supply of a medicine that their body is not wired to and they had the opportunity to potentially trade that or sell it to get what their body is craving, of course, that is going to happen.”

RCMP confirmed that some pills are being used as a form of currency to purchase more potent, illicit street drugs.

“What's really important for people to know or to research is the coroner's reports, and how many deaths were directly related to diverted supply,” Surowski said. “So the diverted drugs are not what is killing people, it is still the illicit toxic supply, which is the reason people are dying.”

What is most effective?

Opinions are different at the recovery house on what could be effective.

“Regardless if it's a safe supply or a toxic supply, we're still keeping them in the cycle. It's really tough to see when we've seen numbers like we're seeing, moving forward,” Russell said.

“We don't want anybody to be harmed by the drugs that are out there on the streets right now,” Rowland added.

“The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of toxic drugs out there and so having more ability to seek recovery, and to find a pathway out of addiction is always a positive thing," Russell added.

Even as Discovery House has grown over the years, adding more recovery beds and independent living homes, they, along with the other houses and shelters, are simply not enough, and the addiction crisis is treated differently than other health issues.

“Anything that helps people find their ways to a place like Discovery House, we want to encourage, but we've also got to realize that there's lots more to it other than just keeping people alive that are using drugs,” Rowland said.

“I think realizing that this is a situation that probably isn't going to go away anytime soon, that we need to continue to ask lawmakers to focus on all aspects of the recovery journey.”

He noted that there are still many phases of getting somebody who's actively using drugs in a harmful way to get them into a state of recovery and sobriety.

Surowski said she understands where people may have hesitancy about the program, especially if they haven’t researched it.

“I'm not going to be completely ignorant to the fact that it is scary, the idea that people are going through these really rough moments of their life while they're struggling in the throes of their addiction, the idea that the answer to that is to just give them drugs, I get why people would be confused by that,” she said.

“If you just talk about the prohibition era of alcohol sales, when alcohol was illegal and not regulated, it was an unsafe supply, crime shot up and people died from ethanol poisoning.

“Quite often, I use the comparison when I talk to people who are struggling with the idea, because when we took away the illegal supply of alcohol, yes, people will still die from consuming too much of a substance that can be harmful to their body, but nowhere near in the amount that we're seeing with the toxic supply crisis today.”

The stigma around drug use

When the provincial government decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, they said it was done so in an effort to tackle the ongoing opioid crisis and "help reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services."

Then multiple B.C. cities, including Kamloops, responded to decriminalization in 2023 with bylaws restricting public use of illicit drugs in public.

The provincial government tried to make legislative changes expanding areas where drug use is prohibited last summer, but a group of harm reduction nurses went to B.C. Supreme Court, where a judge temporarily stayed the law in December citing harm to those who use drugs.

Discovery House said they have always tried to reduce the stigma around addiction and substance use, and it can be challenging when people see usage all around town.

“Everywhere you go, you're seeing the usage on the streets. There's someone in Tim Hortons a week ago, smoking a crack pipe right in Tim Hortons so that the stigma, you're gonna see a lot of that right,” Russell said.

“And you're seeing that because one, there's no consequences right now for using anywhere. But it's also there's people are in a tough spot.”

Rowland said he hopes people will really take a good hard look at themselves on Sunday and see what kind of biases and stigma they hold towards those people out there who are struggling with addiction.

Surowski echoed that sentiment, hoping people will reflect and recognize the people who are still suffering.

“Recognize the work that's going into making so many people's lives. I don't even want to say better but tolerable at this point, because we don't have the services to make them better a 100 per cent yet.

Improvements with collaboration

The local organizations said they’ve seen the community take an approach they haven’t seen before in that there's a lot of collaboration between nonprofit organizations, Interior Health, different levels of government, and local representatives.

“I think that there is more people coming to the table and wanting to find solutions, and listening to other perspectives on what those solutions could be,” Surowski said.

“I feel like we have a little bit more diversity in our leadership in Penticton than before, which I think has a big impact on that."

Russell said in the last couple of years, they’ve started to see some money get put into recovery.

Penticton also added the provincially-funded Integrated Crises Response Team (ICRT), formerly known as the "Car 40" program last summer, which pairs RCMP officers with healthcare professionals to better address the needs of people they come across daily who may be in mental health distress.

Surowski said she’s been super impressed with the work done so far.

“I've had quite a few interactions with that team through running the emergency weather response shelter. I just have to say that the RCMP and nurses involved have been outstanding with our clients. It's still hard because it is attached to an RCMP and there's still a lot of stigma and untrustworthiness with people who are street entrenched when it comes to RCMP,” she added.

No silver bullet

At the end of the day, the groups note that more needs to be done. While there may be some safe consumption sites and recovery sites, much of the in-between and after is missing.

“There's lots of phases of getting somebody who's actively using drugs in a harmful way to get them into a state of recovery and sobriety. Some of those involved [include] detoxification, so the process of withdrawal management and getting them into a stable place where they can actually pursue recovery, and then moving into a facility like ours, where they're actually in a treatment facility where they can work on themselves and find ways to live positively,” Rowland said.

“Then one of the biggest gaps we find is what do they do at that point? Because housing and safe spaces to live when they are trying to rebuild their lives are in really short supply right now.”

He said they also understand that there's only a limited amount of money that can be spent too.

“We've just got to really try to figure out what that solution is," Russell said. "And I don't think we know what it is quite yet. Obviously, with the statistics, we're not seeing it get any better. So if what we're doing is helping, is it the solution? I'm not sure.”

Penticton is invited to mark the eighth anniversary at the memorial bench at Marina Beach at 12:30 p.m. to gather and hear speakers before walking down to Okanagan Beach.

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