Activists carried a coffin down East Hastings Street today (June 8).
It was the same coffin they carried down the same stretch of the Downtown Eastside nearly 20 years earlier, in 1998. That year, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. caused by illicit drugs peaked at 400.
In 2016, it’s projected there could 768 overdose deaths in the province if the current rate of people dying continues at the pace it did for the first four months of this year.
When the few dozen people marching today arrived at Insite, still North America’s only low-barriers supervised-injection facility, Laura Shaver took a microphone and called attention to the potential consequences of inaction.
“I’m here to remember those that have died from opiate overdoses and support those who still live,” said the president of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone. “If there is no support to open supervised-injection services, we stand to lose up to 800 people from opiate overdoses alone this year.”
Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, criticized the government for what he described as an inadequate response to the increasing number of deaths.
“This is an emergency, not just in the Downtown Eastside, but across all of the province,” he said. “We only have one Insite, and that is wrong. We need a dozen Insites. We need more than a dozen Insites.”
King argued what’s at issue is a failure of government priorities.
“While it’s good that we’re hearing the government saying this is an emergency and acknowledging the reality that exists here in the neighbourhood and on the streets, we are not seeing action,” he said. “We are not seeing it fast enough.”
On April 14, the province declared a public-health emergency, just like it did in September 1997 in response to an earlier period of the same problem.
Following the 1997 declaration, the City of Vancouver adopted a “four pillars” approach to drug addiction that significantly expanded how harm-reduction programs were incorporated into health-care facilities. A few years later, in 2003, Insite opened its doors.
Since then, the facility located on the 100 block of East Hastings Street has allowed intravenous-drug users to enter with no questions asked and use equipment provided there for free to inject drugs under the watchful care of nurses. Insite has become one of the most studied health interventions in North America, with dozens of research papers concluding the facility has reduced overdose deaths in the Downtown Eastside.
But since the April 14 declaration, there’s been little in the way of tangible action from government. The province has said it will take measures to better collect data on where and when fatal overdoses occur. And 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. But the demonstrators who gathered in the Downtown Eastside today accused the government of dragging its feet.
Protests held through the 1990s and early-2000s were often organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu).
In an interview just before the march got underway, Aiyanas Ormond, a volunteer coordinator for Vandu, told the Straight what the organization wants to see come out of the province’s June 9 meeting is a commitment to provide funding for supervised-injection facilities.
He noted that on June 1, the same call was made by Yes2SCS (Yes to Supervised Consumption Sites) when it planted 600 crosses in a park in Victoria. Ormond suggested a funding commitment would pave the way for concrete actions that might reduce the number of people dying from illicit drug overdoses in B.C.
“You’ve said it’s an emergency, you have a public-health intervention in Insite that is probably the most studied health institution in Canada, if not the world, which we know works,” he said. “So why aren’t we immediately seeing this model being replicated in other communities?”
Ormond said Vandu also wants increased access to naloxone, the so-called overdose anecdote that can be administered to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Off to the side of the demonstration stood Ann Livingston, a founding member of Vandu who organized many protest actions through the 1990s and early 2000s that were instrumental in redefining how Vancouver responds to addiction issues.
She remarked on how little the situation has improved since then, noting today illicit drugs are killing more people in Vancouver than ever before.
“It’s gotten worse,” Livingston told the Straight. “In the 1990s, there was a palpable panic. The bureaucrats at Vancouver Coastal took it as a personal defeat that they weren’t getting anywhere, and they became very motivated to bring the numbers down.”
She argued the same sense of urgency has yet to materialize today.
“That’s the difference,” Livingston said.