I don’t have personal experience with the toxic drug supply crisis or the drug policy failures of our government, but I wanted this editorial to be about it and the people who are affected by them with International Overdose Awareness Day coming up on Aug. 31.
I revisited this editorial several times, trying to find the right words. When the BC Coroners Service released their latest report, I thought that would help me — it didn’t.
I realized that nothing I could say on my own would be impactful or nearly as meaningful, because I don’t have lived experience, I haven’t lost like others have due to this overlap of crises — drug toxicity, homelessness, inflation. But I interviewed someone a few years ago about safe supply who has firsthand experience, and he was kind enough to talk with me on short notice so I could do this editorial meaningfully.
Guy Felicella is a harm reduction and recovery advocate for people who suffer from addiction, and educates communities on harm reduction to eliminate the stigma around it. He is a former drug user who was brought back to life six times, and he draws from his experience to inform people that “recovery is harm reduction and harm reduction is recovery.” It can be both.
“The problem is not that people use drugs, the problem is how we view it,” he said in his profile video. “That drives people to use alone and not reach out for support.”
“People are dying [in] private residences, a house just like you or me live in or any of your readers,” Guy says. “If you think about the impact that one life lost leaves behind, it can impact between 30 or 50 people.”
This is after the months or years of worry and anxiety about that loved one when they were alive and suffering, the impact is even greater, he says.
“When you think about somebody that dies, the amount of people that impacts through family, friends, community … it’s catastrophic. People are left behind in the world to comprehend the sadness that comes with that.”
The BC Coroners Service’s recent report showed 1,095 people died from illicit drug toxicity deaths in the first half of this year. That is also 1,095 families, friend groups, neighbourhoods, and communities impacted by the loss.
“They die from not knowing what’s in their supply, it tastes the same … that loss is just crippling people,” Guy says.
“We not only have an illicit drug toxicity crisis, but we are also on the grasps, if not already in, we have a lot of people struggling in a mental health crisis because of the loss, the depression, that this brings to families.”
Guy shared with me the story about a 16-year-old teenager that approached him after a talk he gave at his high school. Guy had said “drug users aren’t bad people” and the teen told him he appreciated Guy saying that, because his father passed away from overdose in 2020 but he doesn’t share that with people because of how society views it. He said his dad made mistakes, but he always loved him and cared for him.
“He’s 16 and dealing with a tremendous amount of shame, because of how we view it. That is a 16-year-old kid that has to carry that kind of stigma for the rest of his life,” Guy says.
Stigma, Guy says, is created by our laws and policies, and we need to dramatically shift away from that.
“We are going to continue to see the same amount of sadness, month after month, year after year. We are already six years into a public health emergency. When it was declared, it was under 1,000 deaths in 2016, and in 2022 at the halfway mark of one year we’re already over that amount of deaths.”
The loss will only continue to get worse until we have systemic changes that are desperately needed.
“I would love to see regulation of substances like liquor or tobacco, but the reality is if you’re not going to do that, then let’s just at least compete with the illicit drug market by giving people an alternative to it,” Guy says.
This way, lives will be saved, because this loss is preventable.