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What caused the spike in Chilliwack’s overdose drug deaths?

Chilliwack safe supply advocate suggests overdoses rise when police take out the wrong drug dealer
Tanis Oldenburger, head of Chilliwack’s Mountainside Harm Reduction Society and co-ordinator of the Chilliwack version of a provincially-funded Community Action Team (CAT), with some of the equipment the organization uses to test street drugs. (submitted photo)

There are ‘good’ drug dealers.

Tanis Oldenburger said this with a completely straight face as she talked about a recent spike in Chilliwack’s unregulated drug deaths. The local numbers have long been concerning, but they went through the roof in the first quarter of 2023, rising 80 per cent.

Oldenburger, head of Chilliwack’s Mountainside Harm Reduction Society and co-ordinator of the Chilliwack version of a provincially-funded Community Action Team (CAT), described that as astonishing. She said it coincided with a large RCMP drug bust that happened in mid-March. Oldenburger said police took out a drug dealer who wasn’t trying to kill customers with toxic product.

“I’m not saying all drug dealers are great because there’s a lot of violent, awful people out there, but the substances this person released into the supply were tested and known,” Oldenburger explained. She described that person as an ‘ethical substance use navigator.’

“People who aren’t in this for a big gold ring and a Lambo(rgini),” she said. “They’re sick of their phone not ringing because all of their contacts are dead. They’re sick of their friends dying, so they’re trying to reel it back in.”

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She said there’s more than one ethical substance use navigator out there and Mountainside works with those people through a drug-checking program in the Fraser East region, contracted by Fraser Health. Mountainside uses a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer to test drugs from the local supply. That gives Oldenburger and her team a pretty good idea of who’s selling what.

“And when you remove a supply chain that is stable and known, that people rely on for safety and health, then they’re accessing drugs outside of their known network from dangerous people,” she said. “That creates a hectic environment out there and people are overdosing.”

Oldenburger said the last drug bust that interrupted a relevant local ethical safer supply chain happened mid-week in March.

“Community support workers experienced a huge uptick in psychosis and violence that week,” she said. “Fraser Health emailed me first thing the following Monday morning and said, ‘Woah. Overdoses spiked on the weekend. What’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘I know exactly what’s going on.’

“The exact same thing happened in May 2022, with a bust followed by a spike. When that happens it gets unstable for a few weeks. It gets crazy out there.”

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You will not find a more passionate advocate for safe drug supply than Oldenburger. She is an intelligent and articulate woman. She’s also an active drug user who has lived through very dark days, and she credits safe supply for getting her to where she is now. Alive, for one, and in position to push for meaningful change, Oldenburger said her ‘lived experiences’ tell her what needs to happen.

“Recovery, for me, wouldn’t have existed without safe supply,” she said.

Oldenburger said that knowing what she was putting into her body, and how much, helped her taper down to where she is today.

“Let’s get to the point where you know what you’re taking, and then you can start taking less,” she said.

She doesn’t believe in traditional cold-turkey recovery, which she describes as physically and mentally traumatic and ultimately ineffective.

“It’s next to impossible to get to recovery without something now,” Oldenburger said. “The drugs are too strong. Fentanyl is actually the safer thing than what is around now. What we’re seeing in our drug checking is ‘bathtub Fentanyl,’ analogs we don’t even have in our library of thousands and thousands of drugs.”

Safe supply is hot button issue. For every person sharing Oldenburger’s views there’s someone else who believes it’s about feeding drug users’ habits with public funds and creating a decriminalized free-for-all.

“For me and a lot of my colleagues, it’s not ‘I want free, accessible unlimited drugs and I want to keep using and destroy my life,’” Oldenburger said. “But I think that’s where the narrative is going.”

The Progress reached out to local MLAs Dan Coulter and Kelli Paddon for comment. Chilliwack MLA Dan Coulter pointed to the B.C. government’s prescribed safer supply (PSS) initiative. According to the government, “Once fully implemented, people who use drugs and who are at high risk of dying from the toxic illicit drug supply will be able to access alternatives covered by Pharmacare, including a range of opioids and stimulants as determined by programs and prescribers.”

“The toxic drug crisis demands that we use every tool in our toolbox to save lives and give people a chance to connect to the care they need,” Coulter added. “Right now, people are dying because they are taking poisoned street drugs. The focus of prescribed safer supply (PSS) is to help separate people from the highly toxic and unpredictable illicit toxic drug market being pushed by organized crime.

“People who have been diagnosed with opioid use disorder, substance use disorder or who have a history of illicit substance use who are at high risk of overdose or other drug-related harms can access prescribed safer supply. What and why an individual is prescribed is a decision between patient and physician, based on clinical guidelines which were introduced in 2020.”

Chilliwack-Kent MLA Kelli Paddon said people from all walks of life are impacted by the opioid crisis, and PSS is the first step to helping people stabilize their lives.

“For example, the Fraser Valley Rapid Access to Addiction Care Clinic supports a broad range of clients, including men working in in the trades and transportation industry,” she noted. “Prescribed safer supply is a critical intervention to reduce the risk of death due to toxic drugs, while connecting people to the healthcare system including addiction treatment, and improves people’s overall physical, mental health and well-being.

“Prescribed safer supply is just one part of the government’s overall response to the toxic drug crisis, which includes expanding early intervention and prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery, supportive and complex care housing, and more.”


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Eric Welsh

About the Author: Eric Welsh

I joined the Chilliwack Progress in 2007, originally hired as a sports reporter.
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