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Vancouver mayor, police chief renew call for drug treatment

Gregor Robertson and Adam Palmer say more treatment crucial to reducing overdose crisis

Mayor Gregor Robertson and Chief Adam Palmer answering questions after a police board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 26. Photo: Duncan Anderson.
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Reported by Violetta Kryak

Vancouver’s mayor and police chief say they are seeing more drug treatment services become available but want the provincial government to take more action to stop the unprecedented number of overdose deaths.

Gregor Robertson said the city continues to see an average of seven overdose deaths per week, despite an increase in drug treatment options over the last year.

“At this point we are still seeing far too many people dying,” said Robertson after an Oct. 26 police board meeting. The mayor doubles as the board’s chairperson. “We are tracking the numbers every week and the tragedies continue.”

Unified plea

Almost a year ago, in December 2016, Police Chief Adam Palmer, the mayor and now-retired fire chief John McKearney made a unified plea for more treatment for drug users.

At the time, Palmer said there was a need for a long-term strategy to help people in crisis. On a regular basis, he noted, drug users seek out police and other first responders to find them immediate treatment for their addiction.

“We are going to see hundreds of people die this year in Vancouver — as has already happened — and this far surpassed the numbers that died last year, so we have been calling for more treatment,” Palmer said.

‘Tragedies continue’

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, there were 196 illicit drug overdose deaths in Vancouver from January to August 2017, compared to 124 last year for the same period. The deadly synthetic narcotic, fentanyl, was detected in 81 per cent of them.

“I think we need a number of different tools to address the crisis,” Robertson said. “Obviously making hydromorphone more available is the key one.”

Hydromorphone is a painkiller that is used at the Crosstown Clinic located at 84 West Hastings St. to help chronic substance users. Crosstown is the only clinic in North America to offer prescription heroin and there are about 115 patients being treated there.

“We are going to see these programs expand beyond Crosstown, which has saved a lot of lives today, but we need urgent action,” Robertson said.

Government’s response

Since the new government took office this summer, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has expanded access to treatment and medications such as methadone and hydromorphone and supported people on the front lines.

In an emailed statement to the Voice, the ministry said the work is backed by a $322 million investment over the next three years to save lives.

Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, has asked health authorities to submit implementation plans for injectable hydromorphone treatment to the ministry by next week. This will give an assessment of the time it will take to make hydromorphone more readily available, the statement said.

“Earlier this month, we approved new guidelines from the B.C. Centre on Substance Use for injectable opioid agonist treatment to give people more treatment options for opioid addiction,” the statement said. “In addition, we will be introducing a new community crisis innovation fund to try bold new ideas that could help save lives, and we are developing a hard-hitting new awareness campaign.”

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