VANCOUVER — People on the front lines of British Columbia's opioid overdose crisis are applauding the government's announcement of more funding in an attempt to stem the death toll.
Premier John Horgan announced Friday the province will spend more than $31 million over the next three years to increase access to treatment programs, offer more free kits of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, help front-line workers and empower communities to keep people safe.
Speaking to a crowd of local politicians at the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention, Horgan noted 876 people died in the province between January and July of this year.
"These are our sons and our daughters, our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and our fathers. And if today is an average day, four more people will die. And that's just not acceptable to me and I know it's not acceptable to you," Horgan said.
The programs will be funded with $322 million allocated to combat the crisis in the government's recent budget update.
Part of the money will go to rapid-access treatment for people seeking help. New addiction clinics will be opened and existing clinics will expand their hours in Vancouver, Burnaby, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Mission and Langley.
"If someone reaches out for help, we should be there to help them," Horgan said.
Dr. Evan Wood, director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said expanding access to treatment is key to addressing the crisis. He wants to see a scenario where people get help when they ask for it.
"The key will really be if somebody shows up in an emergency room, this is a health condition like any other and people are able to get care," he said in an interview.
Traditionally, people who come to an emergency room for conditions such as a heart attack get great care, but those who arrive suffering from opioid withdrawal don't get the help they need, he said.
Providing long-term care will also be critical because addiction is a chronic disease, Wood said.
B.C. will also create a community crisis innovation fund "to support nimble, innovative, community-based actions with an immediate impact on the ground," the province said in a release.
Community initiatives have already been "hugely helpful" in keeping people safe during the crisis, said Capt. Jonathan Gormick, spokesman for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
Groups on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have saved countless lives and lessened the load on emergency services by handing out naloxone and creating pop-up safe consumption sites, he said.
"The more money that's available for people to come up with innovative programs that suit the needs of their specific community, the better. And that will only serve to lessen the strain on emergency services."
Aiyanas Ormond with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said the funding for community groups is welcome, but there are concerns about the province spending more on enforcing drug laws.
An additional $31 million has been set aside over three years to support public safety and cut off supplies of fentanyl, which the BC Coroners Service has said was detected in more than 80 per cent of illicit drug deaths this year.
More police officers will be hired and an anti-trafficking team will be created, Horgan said.
"We're going to do everything we can to get fentanyl out of our streets while we treat the people who are afflicted by it," he said.
Ormond said the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users is "dead set" against funding for the overdose crisis being spent on policing.
"We know from our experience here on the ground that the drug war and the way police treat people who use drugs in our neighbourhood just makes people more vulnerable to overdose."
The group would rather see money for housing, Ormond said.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press