April 14th, 2021 marked the 5th anniversary since the Public Health Officer declared a public health emergency related to the rise in toxic drug-related deaths. More than 7000 British Columbians have died, and there are thousands more who deserve our immediate action and our collective commitment to prevent future deaths and harm. Those we have lost have died from bag drug policy, not just bad drugs.
S. Furstenau: I appreciate the comments and the commitments made today by both the Premier and the Leader of the Official Opposition. We are, indeed, truly united in this Legislature on this day that marks five years since the overdose crisis was declared in British Columbia, making it one of the longest and deadliest health emergencies in our history.
As both of the other leaders have pointed out, in the last five years, we have tragically lost over 7,000 beloved British Columbians to illicit drug toxicity. The anniversary occurs at a time where a record number of people are dying from a poisonous drug supply. At this moment, we are losing five British Columbians a day. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the crisis, with deaths spiking and drugs becoming increasingly more toxic.
But where the pandemic has taken centre stage with media and government intervention, the drug toxicity crisis has quietly worsened in the background. The more than 7,000 British Columbians who have died and those who have lost their friends, family members and loved ones deserve our sympathy. There are thousands upon thousands more who are alive right now, who deserve our immediate action and our collective commitment to do a better job at preventing future deaths.
We understand that those we have lost have died from bad drug policy, not just bad drugs. We talk a lot about data and how it needs to inform policy and decision-making in this province. Sometimes it’s also essential to talk about the people who are suffering and dying.
Sarah DeRoo was the same age as me, and when I read about her in a thread put together by her friend, Kevin Partridge, a few weeks ago, she was someone I wish I could have known. She was “smart, kind, generous, beautiful. She strove to make the world a better and more caring place,” wrote Kevin.
Her advocacy started in the 1980s. She attended peace rallies, where she would share her food with others. Sarah was an artist and a poet, and she would give “everything she could to her friends and the community around her. She was kind, one of the most gentle people I knew,” said Kevin. “She helped me cope with loss and grief, and we struggled closely together for several years. She needed care and compassion in a community that would support people with multiple traumas.” Instead, she was criminalized because she used drugs.
Sarah died in December, a few months before her 51st birthday. She died from a poisonous drug supply.
In Jen St. Denis’s Tyee article about artist Alan Sayers, his children describe him as “super dad. He was our hero. He taught us to do everything. He taught us how to skate. He taught us how to play sports. He taught us to be powerful and to be strong but not in an egotistical way. He was a really naturally loving, naturally devoted, caring person.”
Alan lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where his studio is filled with his drawings and photographs. He’s remembered by his friend Trey Helten, who manages the overdose prevention site, as one of the people who was always there for him, even in his most difficult struggles with addiction, someone who became like a second father.
Alan was a casual drug user. He would “have a few drinks and smoke crack cocaine late in the evening and stay up through the night, working on his art.” On March 9, the drugs that he smoked were contaminated with fentanyl and carfentanil, and they killed him. He was 63.
The B.C. Greens will continue to advocate for compassionate, evidence-based policies that treat those who use drugs as people and their addictions as part of the systemic issues of stigmatization, insufficient mental health supports, inequality, lack of housing and lack of wraparound services.
As has been said by the other two leaders, we must all act with urgency to decriminalize simple possession; to expand the safe, regulated supply of pharmaceutical-grade substances; and to treat addictions as a health care issue, not a criminal one. We are five years overdue for a significant change in policy, and we cannot afford to lose any more ground in the fight for non-stigmatized, accessible and long-term support for people who use drugs.