Illicit drug toxicity led to the deaths of six Castlegar residents in 2021, setting a new record.
Data released last week by the BC Coroners Service shows 29 total deaths due to illicit drug toxicity last year in the Kootenay Boundary region. Nelson had seven fatalities, the most in the region. Trail recorded six fatalities, followed by five in Grand Forks, two in Creston and two in the Arrow Lakes area that includes Nakusp.
Castlegar Mayor Kirk Duff says the report is “a devastating reminder of the significance of this crisis for all of us.”
“I want to extend a thank you to everyone who has witnessed illicit drug overdoses and deaths and is working to improve the situation in our community,” said Duff. “Your work is critical, and your pain is immense. We will continue to advocate for the support you need.”
British Columbia had 2,224 deaths in 2021, a new record that is also an average of six fatalities per day. The province has had 8,926 deaths since 2016, when the introduction of fentanyl into street-level drugs prompted the ongoing public health emergency.
B.C. Emergency Health Services reports that they responded to 33 overdose calls in Castlegar in 2021 — almost double the 17 calls the previous year (2020). That also means almost one-in-five of those calls ended in a fatality.
Castlegar Fentanyl Opioid Working Group Facilitator Amanda Erickson says that the Castlegar area is seeing an increase in overdose events in people under the age of 25.
“It is important for the Castlegar area to increase education and prevention activities for youth,” said Erickson.
She also says there has been an increase in deaths among females, with half of the 2021 deaths in the city attributed to females.
Erickson says more government supports are needed to fight the drug-toxicity crisis.
“We’re ready to do the work, but we need more people on the ground,” she said. “Workers are tired. Everyone’s working as hard as they can to support people. But still people are dying.”
Erickson says more overdose prevention sites could help. No deaths occurred at such sites last year in B.C., according to the BC Coroners Service.
“These kinds of services can really save lives,” said Erickson.
She also advocates for education and access to a safer drug supply.
“We want to reduce the stigma around substance use and mental health in communities and bring education to those that need it so that more people can seek support.”
Finding drug-checking services across the Kootenays can be a struggle.
ANKORS operates two Fourier-transform infrared spectrometers, which are used to identify ingredients such as fentanyl. Just one of those spectrometers is available in the West Kootenay.
Amelia Martzke, ANKORS’ drug checking program co-ordinator, is based out of Nelson and makes two visits monthly to Castlegar, Trail and Grand Forks where there is no other option for users to have their drugs examined. In Castlegar the drug-checking is offered at The Way Out Shelter.
Advocates sat that’s not enough for people who are using regularly.
“They’re ultimately going to have periods of time where it’s not accessible for them to test their drugs before they use them,” said Martzke. “Ultimately it just comes down to what we’re able to offer as me being one individual who also has to serve the Nelson area.”
The spectrometers also don’t detect benzodiazepines used for sedation, can’t be treated by naloxone, and are becoming more common in the drug supply.
Fifty per cent of drug samples tested in B.C. in December featured etizolam, a benzodiazepine, according to the Coroners Service. That’s more than three times the rate at which they were detected in July 2020.
Martzke said benzos, as they are colloquially referred to, are detected using testing strips that neither identify the exact chemical nor provide data on amount present.
There are currently no publicly available resuscitation options for benzos.
Castlegar is home to Axis House, the only short-term detox facility in the Kootenay-Boundary region. It offers three-to-five day stays for medically-assisted withdrawal from alcohol, opiates or stimulants, supervised by nurses and withdrawal management workers. If you or someone you know could benefit from a detox centre, talk to your health care provider or give Axis House a call at 778-460-1901.
Erickson says one way that the general public can help is to get trained on how to use Naloxone and to carry a Naloxone kit. Kits are available at local pharmacies and training is available through ANKORS and the Castlegar Fentanyl Opioid Working Group.
“It is a really important time to pull together, connect with your neighbour, family and friends, especially if you are worried about them,” says Erickson. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people, seek help at Mental Health and Substance Use, or talk to your doctor or a counsellor.”
If someone is experiencing an overdose or is witnessing an overdose, call 9-1-1 immediately. If you are in crisis call 1-888-353-2273 for immediate assistance.
With files from Tyler Harper