Harm-reduction services could have prevented Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fatal overdose
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users lost one of its newest members last week, the organization’s president, Dave Hamm, told the Straight.
“He was just starting to get involved and come around and stuff,” Hamm said in a telephone interview. “So it’s really sad when that happened.”
The man’s name was Jorge Arguelles, the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed. His body was found on January 24 in a single-room apartment in Chinatown. Hamm said it looks like a heroin overdose.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died not long after Arguelles, on February 2. He was found in the bathroom of a Manhattan apartment with a needle in his arm. The passing of an Academy Award winner received more attention. But circumstances around the two deaths were quite similar, as were those of Glee star Cory Monteith’s fatal overdose that occured in Vancouver last summer.
Hamm said all three men broke the first rule of doing drugs: don't use alone.
He stressed that opiate overdose deaths are actually very preventable, and referred to Insite as proof.
According to Vancouver Coastal Health, 497 overdoses occurred at the supervised injection facility in 2012, the most-recent year for which statistics are available. Not one of those incidents resulted in death.
That same point was reiterated in a separate interview with by Dr. Ronald Joe, an associate medical director of addiction services with Vancouver Coastal Health.
“As bad as it is to use illicit drugs, there are safer ways to use them,” he said.
“There are a whole range of depots available both for adults and youth, where people can go in and get harm-reduction supplies,” Joe began. “Needles and tourniquet and clean materials to draw up drugs.”
He directed people to a B.C. Centre for Disease Control website where there is more information about those facilities and their locations, which, he noted, extend far beyond Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Joe said there are also services offered for cases in which someone might be at risk of an overdose.
Almost two years ago now, Joe recalled, he became involved in a program called Toward the Heart.
The pilot project teaches friends and family members of drug users how to prevent death in the event of an overdose. It also facilitates the distribution of what are called take-home naloxone kits. Naloxone is a drug that’s prescribed to opiate users in B.C. and, when required, can be used to counter the effects of an overdose.
Of course not everybody plans ahead, Joe acknowledged. And so people should know that in the event of an overdose, a person can call 911 for help and not have to worry about getting themselves into trouble.
“We have a good samaritan law in B.C,” Joe explained. “It’s a simple law anyone can read. It says that anyone who is trying to do a good turn is protected by this law.” (The act is only three sections long and can be viewed here.)
Joe also wanted to get the word out about detox services offered in Vancouver, which many people can access for free.
“With detox, it’s like there is a connotation attached to it that it is really hard and difficult,” he said. “I work in detox and it’s not like it used to be. There are medications that help people detoxify, so they’re not going into really serious withdrawal during detox.”
Hamm argued that addicts would use drugs in safer ways if it weren’t for social stigmas that drive many people to hide their habits.
“These are the things we always say: Test yourself, don’t use alone, and try not to mix, especially with alcohol,” he emphasized. “Things like this are really sad. But it’s really easy—a no-brainer, and just a medical thing—to prevent this from happening.”