Sonia Furstenau

Sonia Furstenau

Sonia Furstenau column: New committee focused on reducing drug deaths

Real, concrete, and urgent action is needed to address the unforgivable loss of life in our province

By Sonia Furstenau

Trey Helton, manager of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, said recently, “It seems like there’s just less and less people. Like the alleyways are less crowded, and our numbers are going down. And it’s not because people are moving on, it’s not because they’re getting healthier or planning safe supply options or going to treatment. It’s because they’re all dead. There’s no other way to put it. It’s just, funerals, funerals, funerals.”

Real, concrete, and urgent action is needed to address the unforgivable loss of life in our province.

Nearly 10,000 British Columbians have lost their lives to the poisoned drug supply since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016. Last year alone, there were 2,232 deaths as a direct result of ineffective action and insufficient policies.

Community groups, harm reduction organizations, peers, and advocates have done remarkable work to mitigate drug-related harms in our province. I have the utmost respect and gratitude for all workers on the frontline, as they have consistently approached the crisis with the empathy and urgency needed.

Unfortunately, the illicit drug supply has reached a level of toxicity in our province in which harm reduction alone cannot save lives. Substances have been cut, and effectively poisoned, with increasing concentrations of fentanyl, other opiates, and benzodiazepines.

The sheer level of toxicity has made it extremely difficult to respond to drug poisoning, and the multiple challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has made effective response all the more difficult.

We shared in tentative optimism in 2019, when B.C. saw the first decrease in drug poisoning deaths since the emergency was declared in 2016. However, from 2020 to now, we have seen record-breaking increases of drug poisoning deaths, proving that those actions were not effective or enduring.

Shirley Bond, MLA for Prince George-Valemount, and I have been advocating for more than a year for the activation of the Select Standing Committee on Health to address the drug poisoning crisis.

Select Standing Committees are a unique and often underutilized feature of B.C. democracy. Committees are populated with a smaller group of MLAs from all parties represented in the Legislative Assembly. They offer elected representatives the chance to address issues collaboratively, without the burden of hyper-partisanship, and with the input from relevant experts and stakeholders.

In April, Premier John Horgan agreed to strike the committee in response to our recommendations. The terms of reference aim to “examine the urgent and ongoing illicit drug toxicity and overdose crisis” and stipulate that the committee would make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly informed by our findings.

The committee is using the Coroner’s Death Review Panel Report to orient our work. The panel of 23 experts made recommendations for the urgent expansion of safe supply and an evidence-based continuum of care, accompanied by tight timelines for urgent action.

The Select Standing Committee started meeting at the beginning of April and we have already heard from Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Nel Wieman (deputy chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority), and medical leads of the BC Centre for Disease Control and B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

In the coming weeks and months, we will hear from experts, peers, frontline workers, and people who have close and firsthand knowledge of responding to the escalation of the toxic drug crisis, and the detrimental effects the crisis has had on families and communities across B.C. To ensure transparency and accountability, committee meetings will be available live, recorded, and openly available to the public.

The Select Standing Committee can be a great source of change. It is critical for elected representatives to show what can be done through collaboration and cooperation. Recognizing the urgency, we sincerely hope that our committee will advocate for decriminalization, safe supply, and provide the government with genuine and immediate actions they can take to stop people dying from poisoned drugs.

Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for the Cowichan Valley and leader of the BC Green Party.