Crosses planted in Victoria to represent hundreds dying of illicit-drug overdoses every year

On June 1, 600 crosses stood in a park in Victoria to call attention to the more than 600 people that could die of drug overdoses in B.C. this year.

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      This morning (June 1), a group of 20 activists, academics, and health-care professionals gathered in Victoria shortly after sunrise.

      One by one, they planted 600 white crosses into the grass of Harris Green Park, at the intersection of Cook Street and Pandora Avenue.

      In a telephone interview, one of the event’s organizers, Mark Willson, explained that each cross represents one British Columbian that could die of an illicit-drug overdose before the end of 2016.

      Willson is a spokesperson for Yes2SCS, which stands for "Yes to Supervised Consumption Sites". It advocates for harm-reduction services including needle-exchange programs and safer spaces for intravenous-drug users.

      He recalled that in 1998 and again in 2000, Downtown Eastside activists planted crosses in Oppenheimer Park to call attention to the rate of overdose deaths that had increased over the course of the previous decade.

      In 1998, there were 400 overdose deaths in B.C.

      During the first four months of 2016, there were 256 overdose deaths in B.C., which means there could be somewhere around 768 by the end of this year.

      “I think they did a really good job in ’98 drawing awareness towards a mass of overdoses,” Willson said. “And we’re looking at a similar rate of overdoses right now, so we’re using similar tactics to try and raise awareness around that.”

      In response to the increasing number of overdose deaths in the 1990s, the government declared a public-health emergency, in September 1997.

      Willson, who is also a staff member of the Victoria-based Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID), noted that on April 14, 2016, authorities declared another public-health emergency.

      Now, he said Yes2SCS wants that declaration to translate into action.

      “What’s happened so far is, all they’ve said they want to do is get more data,” Willson explained. “We see that as a really insufficient response to these deaths that we are seeing.”

      On June 9, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is hosting a meeting in Vancouver that will see more than 80 stakeholders gather to discuss how best to respond to B.C.’s overdose epidemic.

      Willson said this morning’s demonstration in Victoria was about calling for the June 9 meeting to conclude with tangible steps that will reduce the number of overdose deaths in B.C.

      Specifically, he said Yes2SCS wants the provincial health ministry to provide funding for supervised-injection sites across the province.

      Since 2003, Insite, located on the 100 block of East Hastings Street, has allowed intravenous-drug users to enter its facility with no questions asked and use equipment provided there for free to inject drugs under the watchful care of nurses.

      Since then, Insite has become one of the most studied health interventions in North America, with dozens of studies finding the facility has reduced overdose deaths in the Downtown Eastside.

      Willson acknowledged that some municipalities such as Victoria are slowly moving forward with plans to establish supervised-injection facilities of their own. But he argued that without provincial funding, B.C. risks creating a patchwork of services where many jurisdictions fail to implement harm-reduction services that could help curb overdose deaths.

      “I think if they don’t take that coordinated approach, we are going to see a really uneven response,” he said. “Cities that have the capacity or certain people driving it might be able to take those steps, but there are going to be certain cities that are left behind.”

      The Straight previously reported that Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), the regional care provider for Vancouver and Richmond, has plans to open decentralized supervised-injection services at clinics throughout the city.

      VCH’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Patrica Daly, shared those plans with the Straight in June 2014, yet Vancouver still only has two locations where supervised-injection services are offered. (The second is the Dr. Peter Centre in the West End, where drug users are required to be members to access services.)

      Similarly, Victoria mayor Lisa Helps has been saying she wants to see a supervised-injection facility open in B.C.’s capital since November 2014, when she was still just a candidate for mayor.

      In January of this year, a spokesperson for Fraser Health, the regional authority responsible for Burnaby, Surrey, and most other Vancouver suburbs, told the Straight they have no plans to offer supervised injection, but that they haven’t entirely ruled the idea out.

      Jay Wallace

      The previous Conservative government in Ottawa passed legislation that made it significantly more difficult for cities to secure exemptions from federal drug laws that are required for supervised-injection facilities to operate legally in Canada. Since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, there have been signs that arduous process is easing. On March 17, Health Canada granted Insite an exemption to operate for four years, whereas the Conservatives required Insite’s operators, VCH and the Portland Hotel Society, to file a lengthy exemption application every year.

      Willson said the 600 crosses planted in Victoria this morning make clear the need for the province to take a greater leadership role in addressing illicit-drug overdose deaths.

      “I think that this [June 9 meeting] is a real chance for them to get together and decide to move,” he said. “If they can come out of that meeting with some funding commitments and some commitment to ease the process for instituting supervised consumption across B.C., then that will be a really big step.”

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