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People march in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to call on the government to provide a safe supply of illicit drugs and to mark the five-year anniversary of British Columbia declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency, on April 14.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s chief coroner says the province is failing in its response to the toxic drug crisis and that a “massive rollout” of a safer drug supply is urgently needed to prevent further deaths.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe made her remarks on Thursday as she delivered the latest update on overdose deaths, announcing that a record 201 people died in October. More than 8,500 people have fatally overdosed since 2016, the year a public-health emergency was declared, and drug toxicity has become the leading cause of death for British Columbians who are 19 to 39.

“These are terribly difficult days and it is so disheartening to see so many lives cut short, despite the many heartfelt efforts being made to help,” Ms. Lapointe said, her voice at times wavering. “Simply put, we are failing.”

Ms. Lapointe referenced the millions of COVID-19 vaccinations that have been administered in the past year-and-a-half and questioned why the toxic drug crisis has not been treated with the same, urgent, all-hands-on-deck response.

“This is not an issue that’s going to go away without intensive change and involvement of a variety of levels of government. We do need to see a provincial plan on an urgent basis,” she said.

“[The vaccination plan] was a massive response, well co-ordinated, extremely effective. And I have no doubt that should the province put its mind to the rollout of safe supply, we can see a better response. And we need a better response.”

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The province announced in July that it would require all health authorities to develop and support programs to provide pharmaceutical alternatives to deadly street drugs. The provincewide policy is intended to expand access to a fledgling intervention that to date has been at the discretion of individual prescribers, many of whom have reservations about the concept of safe supply.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said Thursday that she has heard from practitioners, as well as people who use drugs, that there need to be more access points, and that the provincewide policy now being developed is expected to address that.

She attributed the cautious pacing to the plan being a first in Canada.

“We don’t have models of what prescribed safe supply looks like within our federal-provincial system, so we are learning to do things in a new way,” she said. “We absolutely feel the urgency; every coroner’s report tells us even more how vital it is to connect people with prescribed safe supply.”

How safe supply aims to curb toxic drug deaths

Ms. Lapointe said she could not stress enough how urgent the emergency had become.

“We are too far along in this crisis, and with these numbers of deaths, to have 12 months, or 18 months, or 24 months, to plan a rollout,” she said. “We really need to bring the clinicians and regulators to the table and ask them what it would take to engage them in this.”

As Kamloops teacher Troylana Manson watched Ms. Lapointe’s news conference Thursday morning, she wondered how many years the chief coroner could keep delivering such devastating news and still remain optimistic that there would be change.

Ms. Manson said she’s still hopeful. She’s advocated for drug policy reform for several years, immersing herself in it after the overdose death of her son in April.

Aaron Manson had begun using alcohol in high school to self-medicate for his social anxiety. His mother said he had trouble stopping once he started, and a drinking problem became a cocaine problem, too, by the time he was in his early 20s.

But in the past few years, Mr. Manson had thrown himself into recovery, taking up meditation, yoga and counselling. When he wasn’t studying for his business degree, he read vociferously, often about other people overcoming their addictions. He had a supportive network, including a father who worked in mental health. After his death, his parents found videos on his iPad about how to reduce anxiety and find peace.

The day Mr. Manson died, he had relapsed on several illicit substances, including cocaine, hydromorphone and what a toxicology report described as an “extreme and fatal amount of kratom,” his mother said. He was 26.

Ms. Manson theorizes he may have taken the herbal supplement, which can produce opioid-like effects, believing it was a safer alternative to illicit opioids, and to ease his anxiety or withdrawal, not knowing how to dose the illegally bought substance.

“If he had known that safe supply was available for his cocaine, if his kratom was [regulated and] labelled, I don’t think we would be talking,” Ms. Manson told a reporter in an interview on Thursday.

“There is an overemphasis, at this point, on addiction services and some harm reduction. But we need to put that separately from safe supply, which would save lives for people with and without addiction. Safe supply is for 100 per cent of people using substances.”

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