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UPDATED: Toxic drug deaths soar in Nelson, Trail in 2023

Both cities set new fatality records according to annual data
Nelson has again set a record for deaths due to the toxic drug supply. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

A harm reduction advocate says the West Kootenay needs more overdose prevention sites and expanded services after the toxic drug crisis killed record numbers of people in the Nelson and Trail areas last year.

New statistics released Jan. 24 by the BC Coroners Service show 16 people died in Nelson in 2023, up from 11 the previous year. Trail meanwhile had 11 fatalities, nearly doubling its record of six set in 2021.

Those numbers are not confined to city limits. Nelson’s local health area includes Salmo and parts of the Slocan Valley, while Trail’s area includes Rossland.

Elsewhere in the West Kootenay, Grand Forks had six deaths followed by Castlegar’s four and one each in the Arrow Lakes, Kootenay Lake and Creston areas.

The Coroners Service said 2,511 people died in B.C. last year, making it the worst year for deaths in the province since the toxic drug crisis was declared in 2016.

Amanda Erickson, the community action team facilitator for Nelson, Castlegar and Grand Forks as well as a consultant with ANKORS, said the numbers show a need for more overdose prevention and safe consumption sites in the West Kootenay.

Currently only Nelson has a permanent site, but it does not have the ventilation requirements to offer inhalation services. Erickson said the Nelson location run by ANKORS reversed 10 overdoses in the first nine months of 2023.

“What we see with this type of low-barrier health care is that we were able to save people’s lives. So we can’t move anyone into stabilization treatment and recovery unless we first keep them alive.”

Public backlash led to Interior Health cancelling its plans in May 2023 for a new inhalation site in Nelson. Critics argued the proposed site, IH’s Friendship Clubhouse, had unaddressed security issues and was located too close to a residential area and youth facilities. A spokesperson for IH told the Nelson Star it is still working on running a fixed inhalation site in the city.

Inhalation, not injection, is the most common mode of consumption in B.C. The Coroners Service’s latest report shows 65 per cent of users who died smoked their substances in 2023.

There are 49 overdose prevention sites in B.C., 22 of which are set up for inhalation use. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions the 2021 budget had made $45 million available over three years to expand such sites, but that it was the responsibility of health authorities to do so. Ten new inhalation sites have opened in B.C. since that funding was announced.

Erickson said municipal pushback to permanent sites is one of the reasons why there aren’t more locations in the region. Low-barrier, supervised sites, she argued, are a necessary piece in keeping people alive before they get treatment.

“If we can witness drug use in a clean and safe environment, we have such a greater opportunity to stabilize people.”

But recovery options are slim in the region.

The first step for a person willing to accept treatment is Axis Family Resources in Castlegar, which is a withdrawal management service that includes support for people under the age of 25.

Then people 19 years and older must be referred to programs outside of the West Kootenay, which is typically Bridgeway Recovery and Addictions Services in Kelowna for a six-week stay.

Following that, Kootenay Boundary Adult Supported Recovery Program in Nelson offers a up to six months of stay in a substance-free home for people 19 years of age and older in one of three homes. The program also comes with mental health and substance use counselling, group programming and meetings with a life skills worker.

On Jan. 25, Premier David Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside announced 83 new recovery beds would open this year in B.C., while 97 additional private beds would now be publicly funded.

But none of those previously existing spaces are in the West Kootenay, and there are no details yet on where the new beds may be located.

Even accessing the few supports in the region are difficult when rural transportation is a barrier, Erickson said,

“If you live out town, or even if you’re trying to get over to Castlegar, it’s really difficult for people here in the winter and to stay involved in programs. … We’ve really shown that if we have additional wraparound-type health-care teams for people, that’s really conducive to stabilizing them around substance use.”

Calls for service related to overdoses and drug poisonings also more than doubled in Nelson and Trail.

BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) says there were 225 calls in Nelson in 2023 over the 108 recorded in 2022. In Trail the increase was even greater, from 90 to 223 calls.

Grand Forks also saw a rise in calls for paramedics with 66, while the need for service dropped in Castlegar (30) and Creston (16).

BCEHS meanwhile reported 42,172 calls related to overdoses or drug poisonings in 2023, an average of 116 calls per day and an increase of more than 8,500 calls over 2022.


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Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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