Overdose victims are mostly not who you’d expect, says expert

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When people hear the words ‘drug addiction’, many think of a person on the street — struggling with homelessness, mental health issues and food insecurity. That characterization contributes to the stigma surrounding people dealing with addiction, according to Guy Felicella, a peer clinical advisor for the BC Centre on Substance Abuse. 

“The way society views drug users is one that’s portrayed through the media on TV. When we hear overdose or drug user, our minds gravitate toward the drug user that’s made visible to us through their struggles,” said Felicella, who lived with a heroin addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 20 years. 

Less than 15 per cent of overdose deaths in the province this year occurred outside, according to the BC Coroner’s Report. Over half of the people who died were in private residences. 

“A lot of them are people who have jobs or people who are in trades, people who are in the transportation industry. They have a residence. They can get drugs delivered usually. They don’t buy them on the street. They’re not the ones using safe injection sites,” said Deb Bailey, a member of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), an advocacy group aimed at reducing stigma and drug-related deaths by ending drug prohibition in Canada.

A lot of the deaths are young men who overdose alone at home, according to Bailey.

Males accounted for nearly 80 per cent of drug-related deaths so far in 2020. B.C. has seen record numbers of overdose deaths since May and although the 147 deaths reported in August were a small decrease compared to previous months, July marked the third month in a row with over 170 deaths, according to the BC Coroner’s Report. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in global supply shortages and restricted movement between countries. These disruptions may be affecting the toxicity of the drug supply, according to Bailey. 

“One of the reasons it’s so toxic right now is that there are people locally producing and they’re not that good at it,” she said. 

She and Felicella both support “safer supply” policies, which allow people access to drugs, which they can trust not to be tainted with substances such as fentanyl or benzodiazepine. Felicella said the benefits of safer supply go beyond preventing overdose deaths. 

“People wouldn’t have to do desperate things to get those drugs, such as crime or survival sex trade work,” he said. “That drug [supply] would have stopped me from doing crime and everything else I had to do to get my drugs — where I can come into a facility and actually receive my drugs.”

Safe supply also includes methadone, but Felicella said it is not always a solution for people because it does not provide them the euphoria they are used to. 

“People drink alcohol because of the euphoria. It’s the same society saying you can’t give drug users drugs because we don’t want to them to get high — let’s do that with your alcohol and see what you look for next,” he said. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C. provincial health officer, recently issued a public health order authorizing registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe alternatives to illicit drugs. Prior to this order, only doctors and nurse practitioners were allowed to write these prescriptions. 

Felicella said he is optimistic about decriminalization moving forward in B.C, but less so about its future on a national scale.

“The [federal] government says they want to reduce stigma, but yet they’re the biggest factor behind the stigma because they’re the ones that have not decriminalized the drugs,” he said.

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