Another coroner’s report. Another vigil. Another election season. These cycles reveal patterns of stagnation and beg us to shake them up, to ask hard questions, to seek new movement.
These last months have been challenging. Numerous fatal drug poisonings, and countless ones reversed, have left families, friends, front-line workers, and people who use drugs devastated. An extended regional drug alert has been in effect since the end of August. This trend is not isolated to the Kootenays. Many regions of B.C. have experienced extreme rates of drug poisoning in the last months, and many communities are reeling from the loss of leaders and loved ones.
In addition to the contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl, and of the fentanyl supply with benzodiazepines, there may also be a trend towards contamination by novel or increasingly potent fentanyl analogues and other substances, such as tranquilizers — all of which exacerbate complex drug poisonings.
Compared to other communities of similar population, Nelson is a leader in harm reduction. We have an overdose prevention site open daily, compassionate prescribers, and passionate peer leaders. But it’s not enough. Everyone is stretched. Access and reach are too limited.
Years of reactive, downstream, band-aid solutions have allowed the drug poisoning crisis to continue to accelerate, taking thousands of lives, leaving thousands of families reeling in grief. Overdose prevention sites, naloxone, drug checking services, all of these are reactions to the toxic contamination of the drug supply. Even these tools become worn and inadequate after so many years. Overdose prevention sites that do not permit inhalation are not meeting the needs of people who use drugs. Naloxone saves lives, but doesn’t reverse benzodiazepine or tranquilizer poisoning. Drug checking services can confirm and alert around the ongoing contamination, but the consistent messaging that the drug supply is contaminated becomes background noise.
Decades of prohibition have failed to eliminate or even reduce the consumption, production, or distribution of illegal substances. Years of conservative harm reduction policies have failed to curb fatalities. The drug poisoning crisis is a large and complex issue requiring large and innovative solutions. It’s time for meaningful change.
But rumbling quietly below the surface, if we listen closely, we can hear change coming.
In recent weeks, Interior Health has been collaborating with the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network to support peer leaders providing episodic overdose prevention services. Trained peers have been offering weekend evening outreach support in Nelson. This innovative approach recognizes the expertise of lived experience, the value of trust, and the need for empowering grassroots responses. Alongside, and long before, the establishment of a harm reduction industrial complex, people who use drugs have been providing unpaid, unrecognized, unsupported overdose prevention services this whole time. Finally, this work is finding recognition within the health system, and we are hopeful that this initiative can extend throughout the region.
Beyond peer overdose prevention services, our health authority is considering additional innovative solutions to displacing the toxic drug supply. Whether these solutions develop into appropriate services is yet to be determined, but the creativity, curiosity, and commitment underlying this shift brings great hope to what often feels like a hopeless situation of political stagnation.
It takes all parts of society, all levels of government, all areas of community to overcome a crisis of this proportion. As we approach municipal elections in October, now is the time to ask our candidates and elected officials what they will do for our community.
With the right people at the wheel, Nelson could create a roadmap to community wellness that could inform rural responses throughout the province. For this we need to ensure commitment to housing (emergency temporary shelter, supportive housing, transition housing, low-income housing, family housing, etc), to health and social services, and to eliminating barriers to success.
Municipal governments can be a roadblock or an accelerant to the development and implementation of innovative harm reduction and recovery services. So, this election season, at the forums, over coffee with friends, and especially at the polls, ask yourself: will this candidate support creative solutions to achieve comprehensive community wellness?
We all have a role to play in community development and healing. Let’s ensure our elected officials bring the best tools to the table.
Amber Streukens is the harm reduction peer navigator at ANKORS.