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Purple ribbons a visual show of opioid crisis grief, while families press for more supports

Lack of support is driving deaths, because people waiting for help turn to toxic supply
Moms Stop the Harm have tied ribbons around lamp posts with pictures of loved ones who have died from drug overdoses. The ribbons are both a memorial and call for action. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)

Have you noticed purple ribbons around town, tied to telephone poles and streetlights? Look closer and you’ll see a photo, and a story of someone who died of a drug overdose.

They’ve been put up by the families of those who died, as a memorial and in hopes the display will spark curiosity from passersby. It’s part of a campaign leading up to Aug. 31, the International Day of Overdose Awareness, and the ribbons are a visual acknowledgment of the crisis that’s often hidden in secret.

A growing majority of overdose deaths happen when people are using alone, hidden at home, according to B.C.’s Coroners Service. The number of deaths has climbed alarmingly since the province designated it a public health emergency in 2016: this May, over five people a day died from illicit drug overdoses in B.C. In Greater Victoria alone, 65 people died this year between January and May.

Jennifer Howard’s only son Robby died in 2016, at 24 years old just one month after the public health emergency was declared. During a stressful time in his life, someone offered him heroin and he took it. He became addicted, and tried to hide it.

“My dream would have been that Robby said to me, ‘Mom I’m struggling.’ We would have gone to our family doctor who would have given a prescription for a safe regulated supply, and at the same time referred Robby to counselling support, and asked what other support do you need? Let’s get it going. That’s the dream.”

Instead, he died alone, with 100 per cent fentanyl in his system.

“He told me at one point, I think I need to go to rehab,” Howard said. “I went out the next day and said what do we need to do? But that moment was gone.”

That moment when a substance-addicted person wants to go to rehab is fleeting, as many families can attest. Help needs to be available then and there. “If you don’t have $40,000 for private rehab, you’re on the phone desperate for help, and you’re told there’s a waitlist. And that moment is gone,” said Howard, who works as the B.C. programs coordinator for Moms Stop the Harm.

Help also needs to be in the right place. Robby wasn’t homeless and wouldn’t have gone to the downtown street-oriented drug checking services, his mom said, adding that there’s a need for services that target all demographics.

“Overdose can happen to anyone. There’s no social-economic barriers here, it could be your friend, coworker, neighbour.”

READ MORE: Greater Victoria drug checking increases alongside overdose deaths

Howard’s two main asks from the government are to radically increase safe supply, and decriminalize drug use. Some money has been put towards safe supply, but not nearly enough.

“The pilot project in Victoria [Victoria SAFER Initiative] only serves 100 people. We’re grateful for that, but meanwhile we’re getting calls from families desperate to get on to a program like that. Families calling the health authority desperate for help. Their loved one says, ‘I’m ready, I want to go into detox,’ and they’re told they have to wait. They’re told they have to wait six weeks, they’re told there’s a six-month wait for any kind of recovery home. It’s not acceptable.

“The lack of support is still what’s driving the record number of deaths, because people who are waiting for services, in their desperation, turn to toxic drug supply.”

Five years into a public health emergency, and people are still dying in record numbers. It’s a heavy form of evidence showing that what’s been done so far isn’t working.

“For all of us families who have lost loved ones, we’ve seen how efficiently a province can respond to a public health emergency, so for many of us it feels like our crisis is on the back burner. It’s been forgotten. How can we be five years into this emergency and still see record deaths? With COVID it would be completely unacceptable, and yet here we are.”

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Moms Stop the Harm have put up portraits of loved ones who died from overdoses to remind people that this can happen to anyone. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)