International Overdose Awareness Day 2018 will see Vancouver call for steps beyond harm reduction

The event scheduled for August 31 is one of a series around the world in response to an epidemic of drug-overdose deaths that is increasingly global

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      Five years into an epidemic of drug-overdose deaths that shows no sign of abating, Tabitha Montgomery concedes that advocates like her are frustrated.

      "But this frustration only makes people more tenacious, more creative," she told the Straight. "With that frustration, I'm not going anywhere."

      Next Friday (August 31), Montgomery and other advocates for drug-policy reform will meet on the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery to join people around the world in demonstrations for International Overdose Awareness Day.

      "There will be a candle lighting ceremony, a moment of silence. Purple Flowers. Silver Balloons.

      Personal Photos of loved ones, mourned," reads a media release for the event." All walks of life...are welcomed to attend."

      In a telephone interview, Montgomery, who lost her father and a best friend to drug addictions, noted that previous rallies have largely served as calls for an expansion of harm-reduction measures such as supervised-injection sites. She said that this year's event will focus more on treatment and prevention.

      "Harm reduction is wonderful," explained Montgomery, who's facilitating the event. "It keeps people alive. But we need to keep moving forward, to accessible, dignified, and regulated detox, treatment, and long-term housing. So people don't end up back at square one."

      "We need to start talking more about prevention," she continued. "We have to start focusing on progressive health care for substance use disorders."

      Speakers at the August 31 event include Darwin Fisher, a long-time manager at North America's first supervised-injection facility, Insite, the B.C. Centre on Substance Use's Cheyenne Johnson, and members of Moms Stop the Harm, a group of parents who have lost children or whose families struggle with addiction issues. Additional speakers will be confirmed soon.

      There were 1,451 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. last year, the highest number for any province in Canada despite B.C.'s much smaller population compared to Ontario and Quebec.

      In addition to serving as a call for improved treatment options and a greater emphasis on prevention, Montgomery said the advocates she works with are in agreement Canada needs to decriminalize drugs.

      That call—to remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of illicit narcotics like cocaine and heroin—is one they share with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, B.C. health officials and some B.C. politicians, Toronto's medical officer of health, and the public-health director of Montreal.

      "We need to turn to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau and really talk about decriminalization," Montgomery said. "If Portugal can do it, why can't we?"


      Five years into B.C.'s fentanyl crisis, the public needs to continue pressuring the government to act with greater urgency, she added.

      "I'm extremely passionate about turning stigma into action. Otherwise, 'awareness' is just a word."

      The Vancouver event for International Overdose Awareness Day is scheduled for August 31 at the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street) beginning at 7 p.m. Similar events are planned for Victoria and cities across Canada.