Manager of Harm Reduction Services Heather Hobbs is photographed in the safe injection room at AIDS Vancouver Island in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

B.C. overdose prevention sites should be template for others: report

In April 2016, the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in the overdose crisis

It was a day Heather Hobbs recalls vividly: the staff at AIDS Vancouver Island had pulled another overdose victim from the washroom, his body was blue from a lack of oxygen.

The man was revived and they closed the office in Victoria to allow staff to regroup. At the same time, in an alley just a half a block away, another of their clients was dying from an overdose.

Hobbs said she remembers seeing the man leave the facility as they began cleaning up from the overdose. His death was the tipping point for the implementation of an overdose prevention site at their facility, even though they weren’t yet legal, she said.

“I feel like it’s possible, had we not had to have closed, that he would still be alive. So it’s those moments that stick with me and really drive it home that these spaces are essential in terms of keeping people alive,” said Hobbs, who is the manager of harm reduction services for AIDS Vancouver Island.

In April 2016, the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in the overdose crisis, allowing for the unprecedented implementation of the prevention facilities. Within weeks, 20 sites had mushroomed around the province.

READ MORE: Most of B.C.’s overdose victims face financial hardship before death: report

A new study by researchers at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research concludes the rapid implementation of the sites should be used as a template for other governments to save lives.

The study says the quick response of the provincial government and community groups is an “international example of an alternative to the lengthy and cumbersome sanctioning processes for (supervised consumption sites.)”

The report, published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy, says other government demands for public consultations and an intensive application process “are highly questionable in the context of legal drug poisonings and evidence-based alternatives such as (overdose prevention sites.)”

Health Canada approves the supervised consumption sites, which require an exemption from federal drug laws, while the overdose prevention sites in B.C. are sanctioned under the provincial health minister’s declaration of a public health emergency.

Bruce Wallace, co-author of the report, a scientist at the institute and an associate professor at the University of Victoria, said the study demonstrates how unnecessary the approval process is elsewhere.

“Our research is showing that the benefits of being able to have overdose prevention sites at so many different locations and really integrated with housing, health and social support is a model to go for, rather than going back to the federal processes, which are more onerous to set up and more limited in scope.”

The BC Coroners Service said 991 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2016, 1,486 died the next year and 1,510 were killed by illicit drugs in 2018. The dramatic rise in deaths coincides with emergence of the powerful opioid fentanyl, which the coroner says is responsible for the majority of illicit drug deaths.

Canada’s Public Health Agency said last week that 3,286 people died of apparent opioid-related deaths between January and September last year.

The report draws on interviews from staff at three of the prevention sites in Victoria to determine their impact.

Wallace said he’s frustrated that other jurisdictions in Canada aren’t adopting the same innovate practices to save lives, especially because they’ve been warned that dangerous opioids are moving into their provinces.

“So to have that level of warning of the potential harm and not act, it’s really tragic that people would not take these lessons and adopt them as fast as they can in other jurisdictions.”

The Ontario government announced in late March that while 15 overdose prevention sites had been approved, six others would close, including three in Toronto.

Judy Darcy, B.C.’s mental health and addictions minister, said there are about 40 overdose prevention sites across B.C. with over one million visits. Thousands of overdoses have been reversed and there have been no deaths at the sites, she added.

Darcy said it’s estimated the government’s actions, including the prevention sites, take-home naloxone kits and other prevention measures, have saved about 4,700 lives.

She said the prevention sites are a critical tool that also connect visitors to other supports, such as housing or treatment. But the stigma remains, Darcy said, and that is the next barrier to knock down.

“For too long we have treated mental health, mental illness as a sign of weakness and addiction as a character failure and as a sign of moral failure,” she said. “These centres don’t judge people. They’re there to save lives, they’re there to connect people to the social supports they need.”

Terri Theodore, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

PHOTOS: Tank crushing a hit at Cloverdale Legion open house

The open house featured military vehicles, games and a barbecue along with the tank crushing

City hopes Surrey’s new energy centre will be ‘a window’ into sustainability

Facility’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

PHOTOS: Packed Cloverdale Market Days

Don’t miss the next Market Days on July 27

Rocky Mountain high: Surrey’s Burzan picked in NHL draft by Colorado Avalanche

Guildford-raised forward currently in WHL with Brandon Wheat Kings

VIDEO: Surrey’s former Flamingo Hotel goes out with a bang

The Flamingo opened in July 1955 as a motor hotel with 20 rooms

Air Canada reviewing how crew left sleeping passenger on parked plane

In a Facebook post, the woman said she woke up ‘all alone’ on a ‘cold dark’ aircraft

Man presumed dead after boat capsizes in Columbia River

Search and rescue efforts recovered a life jacket

Crews fight wildfire along Sea-to-Sky Highway

A cause has not been determined, although a downed power line is suspected

PHOTOS: Event marks one year since soccer team rescued from Thai cave

Nine players and coach took part in marathon and bike event to help improve conditions at cave

Rock climber dies after fall at Stawamus Chief in Squamish

The man had fallen about 30 metres while climbing in the Grand Wall area

Five B.C. students taken to hospital after playing with vaping device

School district said students were taken to hospital ‘out of an abundance of caution’

Being a pot dealer is not what it used to be

Sunday Big Read: the business of selling marijuana in B.C. is a slow bureaucratic slog

VIDEO: Two more pride flags have been stolen from Langley woman

Lisa Ebenal was “angry” and “fed up” after the latest theft. Then people started showing suppport

B.C. couple who has raised 58 children turns to community amid cancer diagnosis

Family who raised, fostered and adopted many kids hoping to gain some precious together time to fight cancer

Most Read