Campbell River doctor Erika Kellerhals says that what’s missing from Campbell River’s response to the toxic drug crisis are adequate detox and treatment facilities.
“We don’t have adequate ways to pull people out of this crisis and you know, what’s lacking is detox,” she said during an interview about the recent BC Coroners Service (BCCS) report on the number of deaths from toxic drugs in B.C. communities in 2022. Dr. Kellerhals specializes in addiction medicine.
“We have to often tell patients to wait months,” she said. “Sometimes we’re having to detox people in hospital, which truthfully is not the most ideal place to have to do it. It’s not always the friendliest for the person, and it’s also very costly to the system …. It would be great cost saving to the system to, you know, just have multiple places to detox people.”
She added that treatment facilities are also needed, saying “You can’t just detox people without treatment.
“Detox can be very dangerous now,” she said. “It’s not as simple as just going through the withdrawal symptoms. People need medical and nursing support because, particularly with the benzodiazepines that are mixed in with the illicit supply, you can die. You don’t just go cold turkey off of that on your own.”
The BCCS report said that in 2022, 27 people died in Campbell River from toxic drugs. Last year also marked a spike in the amount of ambulance calls for overdoses and toxic drug poisonings, with over 500 in Campbell River. In response, the federal government is running a pilot project in B.C. decriminalizing drugs for personal use.
While people dying from the toxic drugs within B.C. communities is devastating to those communities, Kellerhals also stressed that the crisis is going to leave many people dealing with long-term health effects that come from having survived an overdose.
“It’s awful when somebody dies but there are so many people getting damaged by these toxic drugs so that they are forever going to be harmed,” she said. “They’re going to require great levels of care from their family or the system.
“If they recover from their substance use disorder well, that that’s great, but they’ll be brain injured or paralyzed or have a damaged heart,” she said. “The brain injuries are probably the biggest thing that we’re seeing in the non-fatal overdoses.”
The supports for those injured by the crisis are part of harm reduction, which Kellerhals says goes beyond just safe supply and overdose prevention sites.
“Harm reduction underlies how we meet patients that are 30 years recovered or patients that are actively using and entrenched,” she said. “There’s just so much misconception about the words harm reduction in any education around that I feel would be really valuable.”
Effective harm reduction also includes reducing stigma against people who use drugs. Kellerhals said that mental health supports also need to be strengthened. The BCCS report shows that there is an over-representation of middle-aged men who are dying from toxic drugs.
“We need to make it safer for men to stick up their hands and say ‘I got a problem I need help with,’” she said. That would include “making sure work sites have policies and are safe places to come forward.
“Hopefully (decriminalization is) going to help at least change the stigma point of view and kind of make it more of a health issue than a justice issue.”
For those using drugs or who know people who use drugs, a list of resources can be found at the Campbell River Community Action Team (CAT) website: www.communityactioncr.ca/services.