Community workers say tainted drugs, pandemic worsening Northwest overdose crisis

fentanyl picture

It's been almost five years since the provincial government declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. Since then, things have only gotten worse. 

Statistics from B.C Emergency Health Services show that the number of emergency calls in response to an overdose has increased significantly since 2016 in many Northwest cities.

Terrace saw 38 overdose emergency calls in 2016. That number rose to 98 by 2019. In 2020, it was 208.

Michelle Demoe is the homeless prevention worker at the Ksan Society in Terrace. She says that methamphetamine use in the city has increased significantly in the past few years and that the drug supply is tainted.

"It's not really so much the methamphetamine, it's all the toxic stuff that they're putting in it. Lots of fentanyl is in there, and as of January 18th Northern Health put out that bulletin about benzodiazepines in our drug supply. And I believe that around that week we did have quite a large amount of overdoses within a small time frame, and we did lose quite a lot of people to overdoses."

Demoe also made note of the lack of services in the region that could help people who use drugs, such as a safe consumption site where overdoses could be reversed, or a detox centre where someone could receive medical support for withdrawal symptoms before moving into recovery.

April Link from the North Coast Transition Society in Prince Rupert also noted the lack of a detox centre in Northwest B.C. She said that the nearest one is all the way in Prince George.

"When somebody is ready for that kind of service, it's something that they're ready for then at that time. And if we can't make that available to them, those moments pass."

The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis as well. Harm reduction nursing lead for Northern Health Nancy Dhaliwal said that COVID-19 has not only made it more difficult for people who use drugs to access supports programs, but it has also created more stress -- which has led some to cope with substances.

"There's a lot of anxiety around COVID, and if you're already having difficulties coping in life and struggling with substance use, COVID and all kind of compounds that."

Dhaliwal said Northern Health has been doing a good job with distributing naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. However, Demoe fears that the current state of the crisis has become the new normal.

"Some people, when you ask them 'how many times have you overdosed?' now, they've lost count of how many times they have overdosed. It's almost as if it's becoming normalized."