Fatal drug overdoses are now killing far more people than car crashes in Abbotsford and across B.C.
Fresh off the worst year for fatal illegal drug overdoses in its history, Abbotsford is on pace to break that gloomy mark in 2016, with eight such deaths already reported through the end of March.
Those numbers echo provincial figures that showed a 30 per cent surge in overdose deaths in 2015 from the previous year. The rate of overdoses has climbed even further through the first three months of 2016, with a staggering 201 people dying through the end of March, prompting provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare a public health emergency last week in an effort to allow officials to better reach those at risk.
Across the province, illegal drugs are now killing many more people than motor vehicle crashes; last year 300 people were killed in accidents involving a motor vehicle, compared to 476 who overdosed on illegal drugs. In Abbotsford, 24 people suffered fatal overdoses in 2015 and the rate of overdose deaths is 70 per cent higher than the provincial number. By comparison, seven people died in motor vehicle accidents.
The scale of the crisis has spurred a call for more education of users who can’t be sure what potentially deadly compounds are contained within the drugs they have bought.
Just days after Kendall declared the health emergency, Jesse Wegenast walked through the doors of Abbotsford Regional Hospital to visit a friend who had recently overdosed. It was a journey Wegenast, who works with 5 and 2 Ministries, which provides services and help to the city’s street population, has had to make increasingly often over the past year.
Wegenast said the last year has seen an “extreme rise in the number of overdoses, even non-fatal overdoses.” The overdoses, he said, are hitting experienced drug users, who buy their usual amount only to find – often too late – that it’s laced with something much more powerful than expected. But recreational users, including men, women and teens who live normal lives, are also affected and at risk, he said.
“There’s no visual cue for when something is laced.”
Fentanyl, an opioid often described as 100 times more potent than heroin, is the most well-known additive. Fentanyl was detected in post-mortem exams of nearly one-third of all deaths in 2015. But other compounds are also cropping up, according to Const. Ian MacDonald of the Abbotsford Police Department.
“We see this as a really disturbing trend,” MacDonald said. “These are not being produced in controlled enviornments by chemists. They are being produced by drug dealers.”
Just last week the RCMP announced that samples of W-18, a drug described as 100 times more potent than fentanyl, had turned up in B.C., although it is not yet widespread. Fentanyl, W-18 and other synthetic drugs can come in a variety of forms, including pills.
This is the first time the province’s health officer has declared an emergency, and B.C. is the first province to take such action. The move gives authorities the ability to more quickly share data and put that information to use by educating those at risk and identifying killer drugs.
Meanwhile, both Wegenast and MacDonald told The News, separately, that users also need to be educated about safer using techniques, such as consuming only a portion of their drug at first to test its potency, and using with another person.
“The education isn’t where it needs to be,” Wegenast said “We as a community are working on that … but there’s still a long ways to go.”
He said the emergency declaration is a positive step and an acknowledgement that immediate action needs to be taken to stop the rash of deaths. Still, he cautioned, there’s no easy solution.
“Drug use and addiction is a beast with many heads.”
MacDonald said users need to know that they can call 9-1-1 without fear to report an overdose, stressing that officers will be focused on doing what they can to save a struggling person’s life, rather than targeting the source of the drugs.
Meanwhile, all Abbotsford Fire and Rescue are expected to be equipped with naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, by May 1, after authorization is received from the Provincial Medical Licensing Board.