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Vancouver advocate wants language around drug-related deaths to change to reduce stigma

Last Updated Mar 25, 2021 at 5:59 am PDT

Needles are seen on the ground in Oppenheimer park in Vancouver's downtown eastside on March 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Summary

Vancouver policy advocate says it's time the province changes its language around drug-related deaths

Karen Ward says calling it a poisoning instead of an overdose can help mitigate stigma for people who use drugs

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A local advocate says B.C. is not facing an overdose crisis, it’s a poisoning crisis.

Karen Ward is a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver. She says changing our language about drug-related deaths is simple and can even help mitigate stigma.

“Overdose means you take too much of what you ordinarily take — you’ve done too much of your dose. In this case, I’m calling them poisonings because you don’t actually know what you’re using. People don’t know what they’re putting in their body. They don’t know the composition of the substance, and they don’t know the potency,” Ward explains.

“There’s no way that people can be safe 100 per cent. And so these are poisonings because it’s something that’s being done to you, rather than an active thing you’re doing too much of.”

On Wednesday, the province reported that155 people lost their lives due to illicit drugs in February — which is a 107 per cent increase compared to the same month last year.

RELATED: Deadliest February on record in B.C.’s overdose crisis

Ward says it’s no coincidence February marks the 11th month in a row overdose deaths in B.C. have topped 100, especially since the pandemic-induced border closure has resulted in a toxic drug supply.

“There’s domestic manufacturers of these substances by people who aren’t necessarily chemists … that’s causing more impurities and more problems,” Ward explains.

She adds synthetic substances can be made anywhere and are profitable because they’re cheap. Ward says the province needs to recognize people buying off the street are “basically just shooting in the dark.”

“Why haven’t we changed the language? I don’t know. It just takes a little bit of extra thought and care, just to recognize that changing the language changes how you think about it,” Ward says. “This isn’t actually about drugs, it’s drug policy.”

Ward says while people in the medical field understand the difference, people at the government level clearly don’t.

But if we change our language, she says it’s a step in the right direction to fight stigma.

RELATED: Overshadowed by a pandemic, Canada’s opioid crisis worsening as drugs become more potent

In 2020, illicit fentanyl killed more people in this province than crashes, homicides, suicides, and prescription drug-related deaths combined.

With files from Denise Wong