In 2015, there were more illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. than in any other year on record.
A January report by the B.C. Coroners Service includes data going back to 1989. It states that last year, 465 British Columbians died of an illegal-drug overdose. The only other year that even comes close is 1998, when there were 400 overdose deaths, or 10 per 100,000 people living in the province. In 2015, the rate was almost as high, at 9.9 per 100,000.
The 465 deaths mark a 27-percent increase from 2014. The rise was steepest in the Fraser region, which saw a 50-percent increase from the previous year.
In a telephone interview, Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), stressed that service providers must respond with a multipronged approach that includes everything from prevention to harm reduction.
On the latter, she said a change of government in Ottawa means VCH may finally be able to implement a long-held plan to expand supervised-injection services.
Daly said that although most people understand supervised injection as it exists at the Downtown Eastside’s famous Insite facility, that’s not the model VCH intends to follow.
“It’s very costly; it takes a long time to build these big stand-alone facilities like Insite, and there aren’t many places in B.C. where you have a very dense concentration of injection-drug users like the Downtown Eastside,” she explained. “But you do have people using drugs all around the province.”
Daly said VCH would prefer to integrate supervised-injection services into existing clinics, similar to how the West End’s Dr. Peter Centre operates today and how the province’s needle-exchange programs rolled out in the 1990s.
She said it’s too early to name possible locations. Daly also cautioned that legislation left behind by the former federal Conservative government makes supervised-injection programs “very arduous” to implement. But she added that the Liberals’ recognition of harm reduction very likely means VCH’s decentralized plan for supervised-injection services will become a reality. (The Straight first reported on this preferred model for an expansion of services in June 2014 but it is only now that it looks to be getting off the ground.)
In the neighbouring suburbs and the Fraser Valley, Fraser Health operates 12 hospitals. Tasleem Juma, a spokesperson for the organization, said there are no plans for Fraser Health to roll out supervised-injection services there. She noted, though, that the idea has not been explicitly ruled out.
The Dr. Peter Centre in the West End was only granted legal status for its supervised-injection program earlier this month, on January 15. It and Insite are the only two such facilities in North America.
On the campaign trail in March 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed his support for an expansion of supervised injection services across Canada.
"I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction," he told students at UBC. "Insite is a great model of that, and I certainly want to see more safe injection sites opened around the country."