Substance Use News, April 2021

Substance Use News provides a snapshot of news and resources for those working in harm reduction. We share pieces on the social, medical and political responses to the opioid crisis, from advocacy to welcome change. With the added layer of the coronoavirus/COVID-19 public health constraints, those working in harm reduction have heightened concerns about how to provide the safest, most dignified support to people who use drugs. For COVID-19 specific resources, including harm reduction resources, please visit our COVID-19 resources page.  See our Drug Use and Overdose Response page for resources on overdose services, team resilience, governmental reports, policy recommendations, and more. 


In the News

‘An Immense Toll’: 498 Deaths from Poisoned Drugs This Year in BC
April 29: Nearly 500 people in British Columbia have died of poisoned drugs in the first three months of 2021 alone, signalling no slow in fatalities on the heels of the province’s most fatal year on record. That’s about five people dying of drug overdoses per day, as the province approached five years since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency.

Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in BC, January 1, 2011 – March 31, 2021
April 29: BC Coroners Service released information on people who have died of suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths. In March 2021, there were 158 deaths, which is tied for the largest number of suspected deaths ever recorded in the month of March; March 2018 also had 158 deaths. The 158 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths represent a 41% increase over the number of deaths occurring in March 2020 (112) and about the same number of deaths occurring in February 2021 (157).

BC Marks Fifth Anniversary of Overdose Emergency with Decriminalization Plan
April 14: British Columbia wants to become the first province to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use, five years to the day since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said today the province will seek an exemption from drug possession laws under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Malcolmson also said Tuesday’s provincial budget will include $45 million over three years for expanded supervised consumption sites, naloxone kits and outreach teams to connect people with services. Advocates and experts say the deadly toll five years after the emergency declaration shows the crisis is not being handled with enough urgency.

More than 7,000 lives lost to toxic drugs in 5 years — and this B.C. health crisis is only getting worse
April 14: “People who use drugs are in a health crisis and they should not face criminal penalties,” said BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson. “Drug laws and enforcing them has had a punishing effect on people, driving them to use alone and putting their lives in serious jeopardy.”

For One Day, BC Activists Handed Out Clean Heroin and Cocaine
April 14: Activists gathered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood to show how bringing drug use into the light could help save lives. The event was modelled like a compassion club and showed that the model could work to supply people who use drugs with safe products.

BC moves forward on drug decriminalization, new overdose emergency response funding
April 14 News Release from the Government of BC: “Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, overdose deaths had declined for the first time since 2012. The pandemic set us back with a disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs, making them highly toxic and unpredictable, in addition to increased isolation. Tragically, more people died by overdose in 2020 than ever before in our province’s history. After seeing deaths come down in 2019, we know what public health measures can work to turn this crisis around. We have accelerated our Province’s overdose response exponentially over the past four years – and we will do more in 2021 and beyond.”

Advocates in BC’s Interior call for safe consumption sites on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency
April 14: Community advocates across BC’s Interior are calling for supervised drug consumption sites on the fifth anniversary of the province’s declaration of a public health emergency due to opioid deaths. “There’s definitely been a shift — drug usage has definitely gone up,” homelessness prevention worker Michelle Demoe said to Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC’s Daybreak North. “Many more people are using drugs as opposed to alcohol.”

Can you end addiction by making it a crime? No
April 13: Vancouver’s goal of decriminalization of small possession is to reframe the issue as one of health care. The hope is that people who are addicted will be more likely to seek help, take fewer risks to get drugs, and will no longer face the possibility of a criminal record because of a health problem. Decriminalization would mark a fundamental change in how society tackles drug misuse.

Let users carry certain amounts of drugs without criminal sanctions: Vancouver mayor 
April 12: The City of Vancouver has outlined the amounts of various drugs people should be allowed to carry as it seeks a federal exemption to decriminalize possession for personal use. Its proposal to combat the overdose crisis is part of an application to Health Canada. It lists possession thresholds for four main drugs: opioids, cocaine, crack cocaine and amphetamines.

Vancouver funds permanent position to lead overdose response team
April 7: The City of Vancouver is providing funding for a permanent position to lead a program aimed at supporting people who have survived overdoses. The new position dedicated to leading the program means the team is working to increase its visits and improve how it locates patients. “The program is patient-driven. Options are provided without an agenda. And we figuratively and literally meet patients where they’re at,” said program leader Vancouver Fire Capt. Jonathan Gormick.


Advocacy and Education

Why Does BC’s Budget Give Short Shrift to Safe Supply?
More money for treatment is welcome. But without the provision of safe drugs, too many will still die. There are alternatives to a poisoned drug supply. One of them is implementing safe supply initiatives as part of the continuum of care and services for people who use substances.

Cop-Free Future
This episode from the Crackdown podcast team looks at the birth of the drug war in Canada. When and why did it start? And what is it going to take to finally end it? (45 minutes)

Pharmacists at the Forefront
“It all comes down to people needing help, but where do they go?” Dr. Mona Kwong, a Vancouver-based pharmacist and Pharmacy Advisor with BC Centre on Substance Use, says that addressing this problem for people who use substances is the driver behind her work and goal to rethink traditional community care practices.

We Moved Swiftly on the Pandemic. Why Not the Overdose Crisis?
For drug policy expert Donald MacPherson, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven what he’s been arguing for years: British Columbia’s public health authorities are capable of the communication, adaptation and leadership needed to address the overdose crisis.

A gender comparative analysis of post-traumatic stress disorder among a community-based cohort of people who use drugs in Vancouver, Canada
While exposure to traumatic events and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common among people who use drugs (PWUD), little is known about gender-based differences associated with PTSD in this population. We explore gender-based differences in factors associated with a probable PTSD diagnosis in a cohort of PWUD from Vancouver, Canada.

If it wasn’t drugs, it would be something else
On episode 24 of Crackdown, Garth Mullins talks with Desmond Cole about how police use Canada’s drug war as a pretext for violence against Black communities. (40 minutes)

“My first 48 hours out”: drug users’ perspectives on challenges and strategies upon release from prison
Release from prison is associated with increased mortality rates among drug users due to the risk of overdose. The EU-funded project ‘My first 48 hours out’ aimed to address the gaps in continuity of care for long-term drug users in prison and upon release, with a special focus on drug user’s perspectives on needs and challenges upon release.

How changing income assistance payment schedules impact drug use and related harm
A study published in The Lancet Public Health examines how we can use our income assistance systems to address drug use and drug-related harm. The study, led by University of British Columbia (UBC) medical sociologist Dr. Lindsey Richardson and conducted at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), tests whether varying the timing and frequency of income assistance payments can mitigate drug-related harms linked to the existing once-monthly payment schedule that is common across North America and Europe.


TEACHHing service providers how to best care for trans people
THE CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) recently concluded a study: Transgender Education for Affirmative and Competent HIV and Healthcare (TEACHH), a collaborative, trans-led project that expanded upon existing HIV-related stigma reduction interventions and trans competency trainings. The main study objective was to develop a workshop specific to the relationship between gender identity and HIV. An interview with Principal Investigator Dr. Carmen Logie and co-investigators Dr. Ashley Lacombe-Duncan and Yasmeen Persad discussed challenges trans people face and how we, as a society, can recognize and address them, particularly in the context of health care.

Practical steps to center trans and non-binary people in harm reduction
This provides some specific ways that allies and accomplices can meaningfully uplift marginalized trans voices at every level of the movement. Constructing safe spaces encompasses everything from being inclusive in Harm Reduction movement building, to maintaining a welcoming environment at brick and mortar drop-in centers.



Questions? Feedback? Get in touch! Janet Madsen, Capacity Building  and Digital Communications Coordinator, [email protected]


Focus image by Andrew, Flickr (Creative Commons)