Landmarks in Victoria will turn purple in order to honour those who have died from drug overdoses.
Monday is International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual global event held on Aug. 31 that aims to raise awareness about overdoses and reduce the stigma associated with drug-related death.
Hundreds of cities around the world including Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto, Las Vegas, Melbourne, Athens, Paris, Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Abidjan, have held events marking the day.
Traditionally, Victoria’s IOAD event has been a vigil held at a local church. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still underway, this year’s vigil will be held virtually at 7 p.m.
Jennifer Howard, an advocate with Moms Stop the Harm, which is organizing the event in Victoria, said the vigil will be live-streamed on Facebook and will feature live music and speakers including Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer.
“As a committee, we wanted to sure that this day of remembrance was not forgotten. By being creative, what we’ve seen is the City of Victoria has really come on board to acknowledge this day of remembrance,” she said, adding. “We are extremely honoured to have Dr. Bonnie Henry speak.”
Howard, who lost her own son to a drug overdose a few years ago, said the vigil isn’t just about remembering those who have died from drug overdoses, it’s also about acknowledging that a lot more work needs to be done.
“It’s taking a moment in time and remembering and honouring all those that we have loved and lost,” she said. “It’s a day to mourn, but it’s also a day to say ‘we’re getting up with the torch of advocacy and we will continue to fight for those who struggle.'”
This year’s event will also be unique because Victoria landmarks like city hall, the Steamship Terminal building and B.C. Legislature Building’s front entrance and fountains will be lit up in purple to mark International Overdose Awareness Day and honour those who have died.
“Those are things that haven’t happened before,” Howard said. “So, it meant a lot to us that the city has come onboard to recognize, of course, that this an urgent epidemic happening in our province.”
IOAD comes less than eight days after B.C. announced that 175 people died from drug overdoses in July, making it the fifth straight month where deaths from illicit drugs in the province exceeded 100. For comparison, less than 215 people have died from COVID-19 in B.C. since the province’s first case of the virus was recorded in January.
“It really is scary,” Howard said. “I’ll tell you, for all those who have lost a loved one, it is really hard to sit back and see what a quick response [the province] made to COVID-19, and rightfully so, even though the deaths from overdoses are far exceeding the deaths from COVID.”
Howard said one of the reasons the number of deaths from overdoses doesn’t attract as much attention as deaths from COVID-19 is because there is still a stigma around drug use. She said some people are indifferent illicit drug deaths because believe dying from drug use is a choice, whereas dying from COVID-19 isn’t necessarily a choice.
“My son died 24. He chose to take heroin, maybe in that first moment, but after that he was powerless,” Howard said. “I would never judge why somebody ended up going down that path. There are many reasons why people chose to go down that path, whether it is to numb pain and trauma and abuse.”
“My son didn’t plan on dying. He had a life full of dreams and hopes,” she added.
Moms Stop the Harm is an organization made up of family members who have been impacted by substance-related harms and deaths. The group is advocating for changes to existing policies around illicit drugs drug policies.
Howard said the toxicity levels in the drugs that are in B.C. at the moment are dangerously high and needlessly killing people. She said Moms Stop the Harm is calling on the province to provide a safe supply of drugs and offer users help and support.
“It really takes political courage to do the right thing right now is providing safe supply to those who are struggling, that is what is going to end the deaths,” said Howard.
B.C. ended prohibition and regulated the sale of alcohol in the 20th century and Howard believes it is time for the province to do the same for all illicit drugs.
“[The government] legalized it and they created a safe and regulated supply of alcohol and this would be no different,” she said. “So, it’s just changing that mindset that the public has.”
Howard also points to success in Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of illicit drugs back in 2001. She said while B.C. politicians have made some improvements since COVID-19 began, such as allowing doctors to write prescriptions for methadone and similar types of drugs to people who fit certain criteria, they need do a better job at listening to research.
“[B.C. politicians and officials] have listened to the research and the evidence that has told them how to best respond to COVID-19, but they are not listening to the research and evidence that tells them how to respond to the overdose crisis and that is because of the stigma,” she said. “Why they are not doing it is because they are lacking the political courage.”
Dr. Henry called on the province decriminalize possession of illicit drugs last year and Lisa Lapointe, BC Coroners Service’s chief coroner, has also advocated for a safer supply of illicit drugs.