Fraser Health wants to create an Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) in Langley to combat an alarming increase in drug-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, Township council heard on Monday.
An OPS is similar to a safe injection site, but with a wider mandate and run under different rules. They were first created in 2016 after the B.C. government declared a public health emergency due to the overdose crisis.
That crisis had just begun to abate in 2019, with the numbers of deaths across the province still high, but finally falling.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Isolation and stress, along with a drug supply that rapidly became even more toxic due to border restrictions cutting off smuggling routes sent deaths skyrocketing again.
Dr. Fernando Mejia, a medical health officer with FHA, said that Langley has seen a 75 per cent increase in overdose deaths in 2020 compared to 2019.
“Since 2o16, we are seeing Langley losing 157 individuals due to overdose,” Mejia said.
To combat the overdoses, Fraser Health is planning to set up an OPS somewhere in Langley, either in the City or Township.
The first step is to to ask for proposals from social service providers locally, said Dan Kipper, director of clinical programs for Fraser Health.
An OPS will allow drug users to have “witnessed consumption,” so they can take their drugs with someone present in case there’s an emergency. It will also distribute Naloxone kits, which can revive people who have suffered opioid overdoses, and offer links and referrals to other health programs, including, for those who want it, addiction counselling and detox.
The OPS is also expected to offer drug testing, so users can know how dangerous the street drugs they’ve bought are.
“It reduces the public consumption of substances,” said Erin Gibson, manager of harm reduction for Fraser Health.
The site is not intended to normalize or encourage drug use, the Fraser Health delegates said.
Some councillors had questions or concerns.
“I know obviously of families who’ve lost loved ones who’ve ODed in their homes,” said Councillor Margaret Kunst.
She asked if there was any evidence that centres like this have an impact on people who are using in their own homes, which as the FHA officials said themselves was the primary place where most people are overdosing. Kunst wondered if young men in the trades – a group over-represented in drug deaths – will actually use an OPS.
That is definitely something Fraser Health has considered, said Gibson.
“We actually see an uptake of a very diversified clientele,” she said.
Is there a push towards rehab and detox for the users, Coun. Blair Whitmarsh wanted to know.
“We are hoping to transition folks away from a highly toxic drug supply to a regulated pharmaceutical option, which is more connected to nurses and physicians,” Gibson said.
The options are there to access programs for getting off drugs, but the key is getting them in the door first, she said. Reducing stigma is one of the goals of the centres.
“I think the community definitely needs to have a say on this for sure,” said Coun. Kim Richter.
As for existing shelters and resources, Salvation Army, which operates Langley’s Gateway of Hope, doesn’t offer witnessed consumption at any of its locations, Gibson noted.
“These are our friends and neighbours that are being affected,” said Mayor Jack Froese.
He said he was looking forward to hearing more about the project.
New Westminster approved a similar project earlier this week.