Mothers and fathers gather for photographs, begging for government action on overdose deaths

Moms Stop the Harm has initiated a photo series in memory of their loved ones. Meanwhile, officials are cautiously optimistic about a 2019 dip in fatal overdoses but other indicators suggest B.C.'s health emergency continues with no end in sight

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      Across Canada, families and friends are gathering in small groups to remember the children they've lost to the country’s overdose crisis.

      On November 30, Lower Mainland members of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), a nonprofit that advocates for drug-policy reform and action on the opioid epidemic, met on Jericho Beach, across the water from downtown Vancouver.

      Before that, last August, other MSTH members collected in a field of tall grass that overlooks Okanagan Lake, just outside of Kelowna.

      At these locations and more to come, they held crosses and stood together while their photograph was taken.

      “We demand that our leaders who are responsible for health care on federal, provincial and civic levels take notice. We seek action not words,” Deb Bailey, an organizer with the group, wrote in an email.

      “MSTH believes that people who use drugs should not be criminalized,” it continues. “Instead they must be treated with dignity, compassion, respect, and support. We embrace an approach that reduces harm, and respects human rights.”

      Five days after the Jericho Beach photograph was captured, the B.C. Coroners Service (BCCS) released its latest statistical report on the crisis.

      Of 69 fatal overdoses that occurred in B.C. through October 2019, 63 of them or 91 percent involved fentanyl or its analogs, according to the document. Seven of those deaths involved an even-more dangerous drug, carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that is only available legally to tranquilize large animals such as elephants.

      The report was otherwise relatively good news. But those numbers for fentanyl and carfentanil poisonings suggest that dangerous synthetic narcotics have all-but-entirely replaced street heroin in B.C.

      There were 823 illicit-drug overdose deaths during the first 10 months of 2019, putting the province on track for an estimated 988 deaths by the end of the year.

      That would be down quite a bit from 1,542 fatal overdoses in 2018 and 1,495 the year before that.

      But 988 deaths remains miles above what was once considered “normal” in B.C.

      Just five years ago, in 2014, there were 367 fatal overdoses, roughly one-third the number that B.C. is projected to record this year.

      From 2001 to 2010, the average number of fatal overdoses each year in B.C. was 204.

      Leslie McBain (far right) and other members of Moms Stop the Harm met in Kelowna in August 2019 to create a photograph they hope will call attention to the deaths of their loved ones.

      The numbers have decreased because B.C. has gotten really good at responding to overdoses, the coroners service’s release explains. Meanwhile, just as many overdoses continue to occur, in some cases causing brain damage and other serious injuries.

      "While Coroners Service data shows that the number of fatalities related to illicit drug toxicity has decreased this year, we know from our partners in health care that the number of non-fatal drug toxicity events remains high," Lisa Lapointe, the chief coroner for B.C., said quoted in a December 5 release. "The drug supply in our province is unpredictable and perilous, and the long-term impacts of drug toxicity can be severe.

      "The decrease in the number of fatalities is a promising trend, but we need to continue to keep our focus on this crisis of unsafe supply and continue to explore meaningful measures to reduce the risks for all British Columbians."

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      Last October, the Straight reported that while fatal drug overdoses are down, other indicators persistently suggest there is still no end to the crisis in sight.

      For example, 911 calls for overdoses are up.

      The province saw 12,260 overdose calls in 2015, then 19,280 the year after that, 23,440 in 2017, 23,660 in 2018, and now B.C. is on track for a projected 24,800 overdose calls in 2019.

      “The risk of an overdose is still the same, but you’re less likely to die because we’ve expanded [access to] naloxone and created more opportunities for people to consume [drugs] under the observation of others who can reverse an overdose,” Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly said interviewed for that story. “We are seeing the benefit of harm-reduction services.”

      The coroners service's December 5 release includes a warning: "This crisis is far from over," it reads.