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Third annual Overdose Action Exchange gives organizers hope

The message of the third annual Overdose Action Exchange meeting on June 8 in Vancouver was clear: enough overdose deaths.
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​Dr. Mark Gilbert of the BC Centre for Disease Control speaks at the third annual Overdose Action Exchange in Vancouver.

The BC Centre for Disease Control hosted the brainstorming meeting, designed to find creative solutions to the overdose crisis, at SFU’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Over 150 people participated—more than in previous years—including law enforcement, community and non-profit representatives, physicians and other public health officials, elected officials, volunteers, and people who use drugs.

Shane Point, an elder who opened the meeting, said, “Passionate eloquence at its height is nothing without action.” In other words, it’s time to move—now.

“We really need to say enough is enough and move forward with some new thinking about how to respond to the overdose crisis,” said Dr. Mark Tyndall, the executive medical director of the BCCDC, during his initial remarks. 

“Thousands of people across the province work every day to keep people alive in the midst of this crisis. We’ve come together to share our knowledge and come up with out-of-the-box solutions—and because there is no one better to help address this problem than the people on the ground: paramedics, nurses, doctors, volunteers, policy-makers, academics, and peers who have watched friends and family members lose their lives.”

Several other speakers followed Dr. Tyndall during the morning session, sharing hope and pointing at possible solutions. 

Sarah Blyth, one of the speakers, advocated for protecting people from toxic street drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil by providing them with safer drugs and supplies. “It’s the only thing that will make a huge difference in this huge crisis,” she said. “Fentanyl is what has changed the tide and caused deaths to spike—and unfortunately, it’s here to stay.”

Blyth has been championing harm reduction in the Downtown Eastside for over a decade, and co-founded the Overdose Prevention Society in the fall of 2016—even before it was legal. “We decided that we needed to put clean, safe drugs into people’s hands right now,” she said.

Participants later broke into small groups to discuss the seven questions that came out of last year’s meeting, review what has been accomplished and brainstorm what more can be done. 

Question topics included the following:

  • Providing people with a safer drug supply
  • What can be learned from low-barrier overdose prevention sites
  • How to treat addiction in BC
  • The role of law enforcement in the overdose crisis
  • Drug policy
  • Stigma
  • Discrimination
  • Structural barriers that affect people who use drugs

Facilitators reported on key points at the end of the day, and the Honourable Judy Darcy, BC's minister of mental health and addictions, gave closing remarks.

"We're helping to save hundreds of lives thanks to the work of first responders, the Take-Home Naloxone Program, overdose prevention sites, and more, but there is so much more to do," said Dr. Tyndall. "This crisis requires more than just giving safer drugs, but a whole reevaluation of how we deal with housing, mental illness, and the social drivers of this. I'm optimistic that our conversations today will show us several ways forward."

A report on the Overdose Action Exchange will come out later this summer.

Listen to Dr. Mark Tyndall talk about the overdose crisis and the Overdose Action Exchange on CBC's Early Edition (start at 51:30) and CKNW's Jon McComb Show


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