Westward Independent

Duncan’s Crisis Escalates: A 400% Surge in Overdose Calls Exposes the Flaws of Canada’s Safer Supply Strategy

by Joseph Enslow
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Canada’s opioid crisis, with its roots deeply entrenched in the fabric of communities across the nation, has prompted a variety of responses aimed at stemming the tide of overdoses and deaths. Among these initiatives, the “safer supply” program stands out as a government-endorsed strategy designed to mitigate the devastating impact of the crisis. Introduced as a compassionate, harm-reduction approach, the program provides drug users with pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit street drugs, aiming to curb the deadly consequences of substances like fentanyl. The rationale behind safer supply is straightforward: by offering regulated, less harmful options, the program seeks to save lives that might otherwise be lost to overdose.

However, an in-depth examination of the safer supply initiative reveals a complex reality fraught with unintended consequences. Despite its noble intentions, the program has been criticized for inadvertently exacerbating the very crisis it aims to combat. In British Columbia, for example, the escalation of the situation is starkly illustrated by the alarming increase in emergency calls related to overdoses. In the community of Duncan, the number of such calls to ambulance services has skyrocketed, from 162 in 2016 to an astounding 819 by 2023—an increase of over 400%. This dramatic rise in overdose-related emergencies underscores the severity of the opioid epidemic and the challenges faced in addressing it effectively.

*See the report from BC Emergency Health Services

The safer supply program, while providing temporary relief for some, has also led to significant issues. A notable portion of the pharmaceutical drugs distributed through the program are being diverted to the black market, where they are sold or traded, often for more potent substances like fentanyl. This diversion not only undermines the goals of safer supply but also contributes to a cycle of addiction that is increasingly difficult to break. Moreover, the availability of potent opioids through the program has attracted a new demographic of users, including young people who, drawn by the drugs’ accessibility and perceived safety, are at significant risk of developing opioid addictions.

Critics argue that the liberal government’s approach, centred on the provision of alternative drugs, fails to address the root causes of addiction and overlooks the need for comprehensive support services. The comparison to the OxyContin scandal of the 1990s and 2000s is inevitable, with many fearing that history is repeating itself. During the OxyContin crisis, the over-prescription of potent opioids, driven by misleading information and aggressive marketing, led to widespread abuse, addiction, and death. Today, the safer supply program, despite its different context and objectives, is seen by some as a similarly flawed strategy that risks contributing to the perpetuation of the opioid crisis rather than resolving it.

Against this backdrop of increasing emergency calls and the complex challenges of the safer supply program, the story of individuals like Wendy, living on the front lines of the crisis, offers a poignant insight into the daily realities of those it aims to help. Her experience, navigating the pitfalls of the safer supply system and the broader opioid epidemic, embodies the human cost of a crisis that continues to defy simple solutions. As the debate over the effectiveness of safer supply and the search for more holistic approaches to addiction treatment continue, the escalating emergency call volumes in communities like Duncan serve as a sombre reminder of the urgent need for action.

Warmland clean up crew (2023) early morning before businesses open

The tale of ‘Wendy’ – One of Duncan’s many homeless who use the Safer Supply program.

In the dim pre-dawn light, Wendy stirs, her breath visible in the cold air that blankets the quiet alley. Around her, the remnants of the night cling like shadows, tarps and cardboard sheets her only defence against the concrete’s chill. With deliberate movements, she begins her daily ritual of packing up, each item carefully folded and placed into her shopping cart—a repository of her life on the move. Among the seemingly random assortment of objects—an old toaster, a broken radio, a pair of worn shoes—each holds a place in her mobile existence. “It’s all got its purpose,” she murmurs, her breath misting in the cold air.

Setting off towards the local health center, her cart rattles along the pavement, an echo of her daily struggle. The center, a nondescript building, is her first stop, where she’ll receive her safer supply drugs. The exchange inside is brief and perfunctory, a routine transaction devoid of any real connection. When she emerges, the casualness of holding the hydromorphone belies its significance in her life. “Just another day,” she comments, tucking the medication into her pocket as if it were nothing more than a grocery list.

Her next stop is not hidden in the shadows but out in the open, on the side of a busy street where life buzzes indifferently to her transactions. Here, Wendy finds her buyers, the exchange of drugs for cash as mundane to her as any other daily chore. “Gotta do what you gotta do,” she says, the money changing hands with an ease that speaks volumes of the normalization of this trade in her world.

Cash in hand, Wendy’s search for her next fix leads her to the McDonald’s parking lot off York Rd and Lewis St. Here, men on bicycles circle like sharks, their faces obscured by masks, their presence both menacing and reassuring. To Wendy, they’re just another part of the landscape, a means to an end. The deal is quick, the exchange of cash for drugs almost ritualistic in its efficiency.

With her newly acquired stash, Wendy retreats to a secluded corner. She brings out her makeshift kit—a pipe, some tinfoil, a lighter. The preparation is meticulous, a ritual honed by repetition. Soon, the drug takes hold, and she slumps over, a stark silhouette against the urban backdrop. To the passersby, she’s just another statistic, another lost soul in the city’s underbelly.

Minutes later, Wendy stirs, the cycle beginning anew. She rummages through her cart, pulling out wrapped muffins and other bits of food scavenged from her travels. Eating with a mechanical detachment, she scans the surroundings for a group to join, her next fix always at the forefront of her mind.

As night falls, Wendy barely manages to set up her sleeping area, her focus consumed by the need for another hit. The drugs, a temporary escape, offer a brief respite from the harsh reality of her existence. She drifts off, the cycle complete—another day spent in the grip of addiction, another day of survival in the city’s margins.

Wendy’s life, marked by the exchange of government-supplied drugs for the promise of a better high, is a stark reminder of the human cost of the opioid crisis. Each day, she navigates a world where her very survival is contingent upon the next fix, a poignant illustration of the broader issues at play. In Wendy’s story, the complexities of addiction, government intervention, and the street-level drug trade converge, painting a vivid picture of a life consumed by the pursuit of escape, one government-supplied tablet at a time.

A groundswell of concern is rising, echoing through its streets and alleys, much like the ones Wendy navigates each day. Business owners, parents, and even the youngest school-goers have joined hands, their protests a vivid tapestry of the community’s resolve. They’re not just voices in the crowd; they’re the heartbeat of Duncan, each beat a plea for the government to open its eyes to the failing safer supply experiment. This isn’t just about statistics or policies; it’s about the fabric of their community, fraying at the edges, thread by thread. They stand together, a united front, fueled by a blend of frustration and an undying hope. They’re calling out for a sign, any sign, that change isn’t just a possibility but a promise. A promise that the next chapter for Duncan, unlike Wendy’s daily struggles, can be written with a sense of hope, not despair, at its core.

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