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Families whose loved ones have fatally overdosed in British Columbia are calling for the province to prioritize a safer supply of drugs to match the urgency that came with the declaration of a public health emergency six years ago.

In Kelowna, members of Moms Stop the Harm flew 1,000 black balloons Thursday to mark the sombre anniversary, while rallies were held in multiple cities including Vancouver and Victoria urging the government to replace toxic, illicit drugs with a regulated supply.

Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, backed the advocates, saying officials were shocked when 529 people fatally overdosed in 2015, prompting the provincial heath officer to declare a public health emergency on April 14, 2016.

Lapointe said that number more than quadrupled last year, to 2,232 deaths, but emergency action has been lacking during the public health emergency that seems to have no end.

More than 9,400 people have fatally overdosed since January 2016.

Helen Jennens, whose two sons died, the first in 2011 and the second in 2016, after becoming addicted to prescription opioids, said she had high hopes that the province would have a policy on safer supply by now.

“The only thing that’s going to save lives is a safer supply,” Jennens said from Kelowna, where black balloons were used to symbolize the grief of families trying to draw attention to the overdose crisis.

“My boys didn’t just decide one day, ‘Oh, I want to be an addict,’ ” she said.

The need to recognize addiction as a medical condition is paramount or the drug crisis won’t end, Jennens said.

Her son Tyler Leinweber died after becoming dependent on OxyContin following surgery for a ruptured Achilles tendon.

“It escalated to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get,” she said, adding he died of fentanyl that was added to that drug.

“I’m sitting here with his 13-year-old daughter. He’d rather be here with her,” she said.

Lapointe said 80 per cent of substance users are dying from fentanyl in illicit substances and that an overdose-reversing drug is increasingly not useful because the addition of a powerful benzodiazepine knocks people out.

“It’s been frustrating,” she said of efforts to get a co-ordinated response from both the provincial and federal governments.

Lapointe said it’s time for a novel response that would include a clear path to treatment so people aren’t dying on wait-lists, as well as research into whether services offered by private organizations even work.

“We held a death review panel in 2017 that made a recommendation in 2018 for more regulations around treatment and recovery and reporting requirements so that we would have some data on what’s effective. That still has not happened,” she said.

“That is a frustration for me, absolutely, and for families, because we hear stories of families mortgaging their homes to send somebody to a private treatment centre. And then their loved one dies.”

Lapointe called on the province to bring together a panel of experts to come up with solutions to some complex issues, saying the public is increasingly realizing that addiction is a health issue that isn’t getting the full attention it deserves.

A death review panel from the coroners service also recommended action last month with 30-, 60- and 90-day timelines, but Lapointe said the province has still not provided a formal response.

The Mental Health and Addictions Ministry said 12,000 people are getting a safer supply, but the BC Centre on Substance Use said that number seems inaccurate and may include substances that are not considered alternatives to street drugs.

The ministry did not immediately provide a response to the centre’s claim.

Premier John Horgan, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a joint statement that the province is working to scale up overdose prevention measures.

“This is an anniversary that cannot continue,” they said.

“We need to come together to protect British Columbians now and into the future. While we are making progress, we know there is much more to do.”

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