Harm reduction supplies, like naloxone, are available at the outreach van. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Expert panel recommends safe supply, evidence-based care to counter toxic drug crisis

Cranbrook — and British Columbia — reported record deaths attbributed to toxic drugs in 2021

A safer drug supply and establishing an evidence-based continuum of care are key recommendations stemming from a death review panel report on illicit toxic drugs released by the BC Coroners Service on Wednesday.

Convened by a panel of experts, the report focused on investigating circumstances behind 6,007 illicit toxic drug deaths between Aug. 2017 – July 2021.

“This report includes realistic, actionable recommendations that the panel believes will reduce the number of people dying due to toxic, illicit drugs in our province,” said Michael Egilson, death review panel chair, in a news release.

“We recognize that many of the timelines in the report are aggressive, but COVID-19 has demonstrated how swiftly policy-makers can act when lives are at stake — and we know that every month of inaction equates to hundreds more lives lost.”

The report lays out a roadmap of actions that the province and health authorities should take in response to the ongoing toxic drug crisis.

It recommends creating a provincial framework for a safer supply distribution network, including rural, remote and Indigenous communities, and identifying criteria for people at risk of death from toxic drugs that lowers barriers to accessing safe supply.

Other recommendations include developing an action plan with ongoing monitoring that would develop and implement a management and governance framework aimed at reducing toxic drug deaths, including identifying roles and responsibilities within the health care system.

The panel also recommended developing standard practices to support health care workers and prescribers within health care facilities to assess, screen and diagnose patients for substance use disorders and further develop referral mechanisms to evidence-based support services.

Establishing metrics, along with enhanced data sharing and public communications, similar to government COVID-19 reporting, was another crucial recommendation

Illicit drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural death in B.C., accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related deaths combined, according to a BC Coroners Service news release.

“We know that everyone who dies because of illicit drug toxicity leaves behind family, friends and communities who grieve their loss,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.

“As we approach the sixth anniversary of the declaration of the public health emergency into substance-related harms, co-ordinated, urgent action is needed to reduce the devastation illicit drugs have inflicted on so many people in our province. This report, by a panel of subject-matter experts, provides a road map. It is my sincere hope that their advice will be actioned.”

Sheila Malcolmson, Minster of Mental Health and Addictions, touted and defended the province’s response to the toxic drug crisis in a statement, noting “historic investments” in mental health and substance use services, and expansion of a safer supply program.

The province is also waiting on the results of an application submitted to the federal government last November that would decriminalize people who use drugs through a Health Canada exemption under a section of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

“There is more to do along the entire continuum of care to end the poisoned drug crisis, including treatment and recovery, harm reduction and mental-health supports. We won’t stop working until we turn this crisis around,” Malcolmson said.

British Columbia declared a public health emergency six years ago in response to rising numbers of deaths due to toxic drugs. Since that declaration, there have been over 9,000 deaths in B.C. due to the toxic drug supply.

READ: Cranbrook Chamber hosts second town hall on crime, homelessness

In Cranbrook, the BC Coroners Service reported 16 deaths due to illicit drug toxicity, and 22 deaths in the East Kootenay, in 2021.

For additional context, there were 280 deaths in Cranbrook as a result of any and all causes in 2021, according to the BC Vital Statistics Agency.

Cranbrook also experienced a record-breaking number of overdose response calls by paramedics last year, with 191 logged by BC Emergency Health Services, which approximates to six per cent of last year’s BC EHS call-outs in the city.


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