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26 toxic drug deaths: 26 parents, 26 cousins, 26 coworkers, 26 friends

The human toll of Campbell River’s toxic drug crisis
This year was the most deadly year in B.C.’s ongoing opioid crisis. On August 31, The Campbell River Community Action Team and other groups hosted an International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) event where people could learn to save a life by administering Naloxone. Photo by Marc Kitteringham / Campbell River Mirror

Though 26 people died in Campbell River due to the toxic drug supply in the area, the effects extend much further into the community.

Earlier this month, the BC Coroners Service released its annual report on the amount of deaths attributable to the toxic drug crisis in B.C. In the greater Campbell River area, 26 people lost their lives in 2021 due to drug toxicity, at a rate that was drastically higher than in previous years. However, putting those numbers into context of real people and their impact on the community is a bit harder than just looking at numbers on a page.

Gwen Donaldson, coordinator for the Campbell River Community Action Team (CAT) said that “anytime we get one of these reports it is incredibly disturbing and we feel so bad for the human loss.”

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“That’s 26 people that were children once, 26 people that have kids of their own, have parents, families, have friends, social networks, co-workers. The ripple effect of 26 people who are no longer in our community is quite dramatic,” she said. “It’s really hard to contextualize.

“That’s one of the things I’ve struggled with when we get these reports. We just see these numbers and it’s really hard to contextualize what the impact of those numbers is and to try to humanize it. Twenty six people is an entire classroom of students really. When you think about it, that’s a lot of people who are no longer with us.”

Donaldson said that because of the recent spike in numbers of deaths, the issue is more of a toxic drug problem rather than an overdose problem.

“The drugs are so toxic,” she said. “People are not overdosing, they are being poisoned by the supply. It’s just incredibly contaminated.”

For people who work with drug users, it is too obvious how deep the crisis goes. However, for people who are not exposed to the drug crisis it can be hard to see the reality of the situation. For example, most of the deaths in the province last year occurred in someone’s home, and the crisis is affecting people in all subgroups within the community.

“The stigmatization of substance use and people who use substances definitely leads to a public response where people don’t expect that,” Donaldson said. “The fact of the matter is that the drug supply right now is incredibly toxic and poisonous. It will affect our community on a whole and not just one population or another.”

While the report was not easy reading for Donaldson, there were some areas that show potential for improving the crisis. One of which is the fact that throughout the province, zero deaths can be attributed to drugs from the safe supply program.

“The research indicates that safe supply saves lives,” Donaldson said, adding that “not a single death has occurred in a supervised consumption site. We do know that those help save lives.”

The Campbell River overdose protection site is run by the Vancouver Island Mental Health Association located at 1330 Dogwood Street, Unit 5, but Donaldson said that more needs to be done in order to really stop the growing crisis.

“The big thing is that we work together with partners at the Community Action Team to try to make our lives better for people, our community safer and we need a multi systems approach to this,” she said. “Anything we can do… we need a broad spectrum of responses. We need harm reduction, safe supply, detox, treatment and recovery services. This is a massive crisis.”

The Community Action Team has a list of resources for people who are either using drugs or know someone who is. The list is available on their website.