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New West centre pushes back against tide of drug deaths

Facility’s services, including safe-consumption resources and drug testing, have helped save lives, city says
Overdose prevention: Supervised consumption, drug testing and referrals are among the services offered at the health contact centre in New Westminster. photo Theresa McManus

More than 100 lives have been saved since a health contact centre opened in New Westminster in April 2021.

The City of New Westminster reports that there were 3,133 total visits for witnessed consumption at the health contact centre between April 2021 and Feb. 28, 2023. During that time, the facility’s staff responded to 123 toxic drug incidents in the centre and 23 in the surrounding area.

The Lower Mainland Purpose Society for Youth and Families operates the health contact centre, which provides services including safe consumption, drug testing, harm reduction supplies, take-home naloxone kits, naloxone training, education on safer drug use and referral to treatment centres and health services. It also provides outreach services in the community.

In April 2023, the Begbie Street facility had 136 visits and responded to five overdoses (including three off-site). Items distributed in April included 157 smoking kits, 147 injecting kits, four safe-sex kits, 147 take-home naloxone kits and 639 bubble pipes.

Data from the Purpose Society shows that there were nine overdoses (including four off-site) in March. Three overdoses occurred in February.

“You can see from the numbers on overdoses or reactions to toxic drugs that many lives have been saved because individuals used the safe consumption site,” said Lynda Fletcher-Gordon, the society’s acting executive director.

John Stark, New West’s supervisor of community planning, noted that between 2016 and 2022, New Westminster had a higher overdose death rate than Fraser North and Fraser Health in six of the seven years. It also had a higher death rate than the province as a whole in five of those seven years.

“Between 2021 and 2022, New Westminster experienced a 33.3 per cent decrease in overdose deaths compared to a 20.6 per cent decrease for Fraser North, a 12.4 per cent decrease for Fraser Health and a 0.3 per cent increase for the province,” he said in a statement to the Record. “Of note, the health contact centre, which contains an overdose prevention site, opened on April 6, 2021.”

In July 2020, city council directed staff to work with Fraser Health to explore the idea of an overdose prevention site in New Westminster. City staff worked with Fraser Health officials on a temporary use permit, as the proposed use was not permitted under the existing zoning; council approved the permit, which enabled the facility to operate for three years, with the ability to extend for an additional three years.

“The New Westminster city council has recognized the need for a safe consumption site and other services and has stepped up to address the situation created by the presence of toxic drugs in our community,” said Fletcher-Gordon. “This has benefited everyone in New Westminster, from the people using substances to residents and businesses.”

Given the severity of the opioid crisis, Fletcher-Gordon believes every municipality and the provincial and federal governments should be doing all they can to fight this health emergency. She said many communities are implementing bylaws designed to keep people from using drugs in public, but haven’t created programs to help the people using the drugs or to prevent them from dying.

“While we all want to protect our children from witnessing heartbreaking scenes, seeing someone inject or inhale drugs does not cause a person to become a substance user,” she said. “Talking to children about substance use will, over time, contribute to reducing the stigma surrounding substance use.”

Stigma, said Fletcher-Gordon, plays a huge role in why people use drugs behind closed doors.

“The people who are using substances and living on the streets, or who are marginally housed, are more likely to access a safe consumption site, receive current information on toxic drugs, be aware of life-saving apps like Lifeguard, and practise not using alone,” she said.

“The people who are dying from toxic drugs are people, mostly men, who are using at home behind closed doors. They may be weekend users, using at a party, those who keep their drug use secret, may have relapsed and have a very low tolerance for drugs after a period of abstinence, and who would never use a safe consumption (site) because of the stigma.”

Supporting the overdose prevention site is just one of the initiatives undertaken by the City of New Westminster in response to the drug poisoning crisis. Other actions include:

* Adopting a 2019 strategic plan that included a pledge to “take a lead role in responding to the opioid epidemic.” This action came after overdose deaths surged from nine in 2016 to 35 in 2018.

* Developing a case for support to Fraser Health for extended hours and additional services for the health contact centre. The city says extended hours will reduce public consumption of drugs and reduce the risk of overdose and death, especially since provincial law now allows adults to possess small amounts of specific illicit drugs for personal use without being subject to arrest or having their drugs seized.

* Exploring a post-opioid overdose follow-up program, which aims to reduce the risk of overdose and death among those who use illicit drugs and who are most at risk. The program would see at-risk people offered education, harm-reduction supplies and health-care support that addresses their specific needs.

* Advocating for additional mental health supports, as some people experiencing mental health issues self-medicate using illicit drugs.

* Working with BC Housing on providing supportive housing units in New Westminster, something the city says enables residents to address issues related to substance use, from a position of stable and secure housing and ongoing support services.

The Lower Mainland Purpose Society is also hosting the Overdose Community Action Team, which is co-ordinating efforts to address the opioid epidemic, including related to stigma. The society is also implementing a program through which a drug testing van will take calls for at-home drug testing.

“Drug testing is effective in determining whether the drugs someone is about to use are toxic enough to kill them,” said Fletcher Gordon.

Community concerns

Some community members have expressed concerns that the overdose prevention site in downtown New West has drawn more drug users to the area and has resulted in issues such as an increases in drug paraphernalia and feces on city streets. Concerns have also been raised by community members that some recent crimes in the city, including a shooting and stabbings, occurred in close proximity to the facility.

Fletcher-Gordon said the safe consumption site has generally been well received by the community. She said an advisory committee, which is open to any residents, business owners or other organizations wishing to attend, meets every month.

“The residents of a local tower have brought their concerns to the meeting, and the safe consumption site staff have done their best to be part of or offer solutions,” she said. “Many of the issues that were addressed were present in the community before the safe consumption site was established. Local residents have acknowledged this, which makes working together easier and more productive because the residents are not blaming the site.”

Since the safe consumption site opened, there’s been a shift to the way people use drugs, with most users now smoking rather than injecting, said Fletcher-Gordon.

“Smoking toxic drugs does not reduce the risk of death, and these folks will also come to the safe consumption site to smoke their drugs outside,” she noted. “Retrofitting the safe consumption site to handle smoking drugs has not been done because it is a major expense. There are cameras that cover the back of the safe consumption site, and staff watch the cameras for people who may need help as a result of using toxic drugs.”

Fletcher-Gordon said health contact centre staff patrol the outside area several times an hour to make sure everyone is OK, and other folks who are outside will alert staff if someone needs help.

“People come to the back of the building to be safe and smoke safely, and they bring their food and belongings. This becomes an ‘eyesore’ for some people who do not want to see or be reminded how some people are living,” she said. “While this is understandable, the solution is not to shoo them away so that the street looks clean and nice.”

Politicians, and other decision-makers and influencers, must turn their faces toward the storm and make the hard decisions required to end the ongoing deaths, said Fletcher-Gordon.

“The plan needs to be encompassing and long term and recognize that recovery may look different for different people,” she said. “The plan should cover access to safe supply, immediate access to short-term treatment and ongoing treatment that is available for at least a year, safe housing in which to recover, support for a person to redirect their life, and discover ways to contribute to their community.”

Brad Davie, acting deputy chief of New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services, said all New West firefighters are trained with naloxone and all other therapies required to manage an overdose. In 2022, firefighters responded to more than 500 overdose calls, an increase over previous years.

“We have seen an increase in March and April in New Westminster,” he said. “We also are receiving increasing reports that fewer overdoses are reported, as more often that peers are managing overdoses and not always calling 911.”

New Westminster drug toll

More than 230 unregulated drug deaths have been recorded in New Westminster since 2013.

According to data published by the BC Coroners Service, the number of unregulated drug deaths in New West since 2020 was more than the total death toll between 2013 to 2019.

Between 2020 and the end of March 2023, New West saw a total of 121 deaths, compared with 116 in the previous seven years combined.

In total, 237 unregulated drug deaths have been recorded in the city in the last decade.

The numbers reflect the trend in the province — there has been a broad increase in the number of unregulated drug deaths in B.C. between 2013, when the toll was 334, and last year, when there were 2,314 deaths.

In New West, the annual death toll did not exceed 12 between 2013 and 2016, but in 2017 it soared to 24. Ever since, the number of deaths has stayed above 20, with 2021 seeing 46 people succumb to unregulated drugs.

This year between January and March there were eight suspected unregulated drug deaths.

Provincewide this year, 84 per cent of the deaths occurred inside — in private residences, social and supportive housing, shelters, hotels and other locations — and 15 per cent occurred outside.

Illicit fentanyl and analogues (including fentanyl, acetylfentanyl, 3-methylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, carfentanil, cyclopropyl fentanyl, methoxyacetylfentanyl, 4-fluoroisobutyryl fentanyl and norfentanyl) were involved in 85.8 per cent of the illicit drug toxicity deaths between 2019 and 2022, in B.C.

In comparison, in 2012, only five per cent of the deaths involved illicit fentanyl.

The second top drug involved in illicit drug toxicity deaths was cocaine, followed by methamphetamine/amphetamine, and other opioids including heroin, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, hydromorphine and methadone.

― With files from Naveena Vijayan

This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government’s alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It’s available 24 hours a day.