Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian made no apologies on Tuesday for what he called a “passion” for solving a crisis killing dozens of Kamloops residents annually.
Last year, 48 people died locally from illicit drug overdoses, primarily drugs contaminated with fentanyl. In 2017, 38 people died. In 2016, there were 44 deaths.
“If anyone in the front row [in council chambers] had come to us with a death from a swimming pool or a death from a hockey rink or a death from a crosswalk, we would be all over it,” Christian told an Interior Health delegation, which travelled from Kelowna to Kamloops for a face-to-face meeting to discuss addictions treatment programs.
“And yet you come every year with 50 deaths in our population. That is just of grave concern to myself and to our council."
Council heard from IH that harm reduction continues to be most effective, following a significant spike in overdose deaths in 2016 that has not let up.
In 2008, the province recorded 183 overdose deaths. A decade later, in 2018, the province recorded 1,510 overdose deaths.
Through the end of January, two people have died this year in Kamloops by overdose.
According to coroners information, most of the deaths involve men between the ages of 30 and 39 and 50 and 54 and occur in private residences. Interior Health said it is addressing the crisis with services based on people’s relationships with drugs.
People who don’t use drugs are targeted through education and peer engagement, while those who experiment with drugs or use occasionally can access naloxone and harm-reduction supplies. People with substance-use disorders have the most resources, including supervised drug-use sites.
However, two of every three people dying by overdose are doing so behind closed doors and IH mental-health and substance-use administrator Deborah Morris acknowledged a “hidden population,” with education and destigmatization the only answers given about how to help.
IH said society’s negative view of people with substance-use problems prevents them from accessing help.
IH medical health officer Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi called on families, community members and the media to help remove barriers.
Pushed outside of council chambers on whether removing stigma is enough, Golmohammadi said: “It is not enough, for sure. So education is another point. What we have through different channels.
“Media has done outstanding work in providing relevant information to people who either occasionally use or recreationally use about the dangers of these substances. We feel media has played a very important role in informing the general public with relevant and helpful information.”
Asked if IH could be doing more to educate the public, Golmohammadi said “absolutely” and pointed to links on Interior Health’s website, in addition to education offered through outreach, public health and school programs.
“We try to use every possible channel in terms of educating the public and informing the public,” Golmohammadi said.
Meanwhile, Christian said interventions have not bent the curve and suggested information from the coroner and emergency departments be released sooner to inform and adjust services to meet times of need. He also suggested public health officials proactively attend places like universities to educate those in vulnerable professions, such as tradespeople.
Coun. Dieter Dudy asked if IH would be willing to lobby for decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs, given drugs are not safe and people continue to use and use alone. Golmohammadi would not go that far, but said health officers agree strict rules around safe substances is one of the most effective ways to prevent overdose deaths.
“We have now trying and piloting injectable opioid-agonist therapy in Kelowna and we are exploring other communities, as well,” Golmohammadi said.
Coun. Bill Sarai did not mince words.
He expressed concerns about providing syringes to drug users to purchase drugs illegally, shoot up and “cause havoc in our city.”
Sarai said drug users repeatedly return to supervised drug-use sites in Kamloops and believes harm reduction is not working.
“Some of those same people are coming back to you and ODing in front of you and you’re reviving them and then you’re throwing stats out there that we saved some lives,” Sarai said. “Those people aren’t coming there to ask you to help them. In my opinion, from what I’ve heard, they come there because they’re looking for that next high.”
Morris defended harm reduction, noting every opportunity to interact with someone who has been using is an opportunity to make a difference. Interior Health’s mobile supervised drug-use site — a converted RV that stops downtown and in North Kamloops — has had more than 10,000 visits, with 1,400 of them for supervised drug use. Since opening, there have been 37 overdoses reversed at the sites and no deaths.
“We can’t lose that,” Morris said. “We know that we have very finite windows. We know we have people that have been using for many, many years that don’t engage with our traditional services. Every chance we have in terms of an interaction we have with that individual is an opportunity to plant a seed.”
Under review, however, could be whether such services are open during the right times and in the right locations.
Coun, Bill Sarai also called for more wraparound services and treatment beds, of which Kamloops has about 40.
Golmohammadi said willingness is fundamental to treatment, opining that extra beds would not be the best use of taxpayer money. Asked about gaps, he pointed to community programs catering to specific groups, such as youth, Aboriginal, single parents, mental-health issues and the homeless. Golmohammadi said such programs would create a sense of belonging, engagement and hope for the future.