Marty Sutmoller reads a poem in the memory of Sebastian Witt, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2015. Sutmoller spoke at an event in Nelson marking International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, 2021. Photo: Tyler Harper

Marty Sutmoller reads a poem in the memory of Sebastian Witt, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2015. Sutmoller spoke at an event in Nelson marking International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, 2021. Photo: Tyler Harper

Toxic drug supply leads to seven Nelson deaths, 29 in Kootenay Boundary in 2021

It’s the most the area has had since the start of the health crisis in 2016

The ongoing drug toxicity crisis led to the deaths of seven people in the Nelson area in 2021, a record high and the most in the West Kootenay.

Data released Wednesday by the BC Coroners Service shows 29 total deaths due to illicit drug toxicity last year in the Kootenay Boundary region. Trail and Castlegar each recorded six fatalities, followed by five in Grand Forks, two in Creston and two in the Arrow Lakes area that includes Nakusp.

British Columbia had 2,224 deaths in 2021, a new record that is also an average of six fatalities per day. The province has had 8,926 deaths since 2016, when the introduction of fentanyl into street-level drugs prompted the ongoing public health emergency.

The latest numbers also mean the Nelson local health area, which includes Salmo and parts of the Slocan Valley, has now had 20 total deaths since 2016. Previously there had been just six such fatalities between 2010 and 2015.

Despite the number of fatalities, overdose response calls to BC Emergency Health Service in Nelson fell from 53 in 2020 to 47 last year. That’s also the lowest number of calls to the service in the Nelson area since 2017.

The deaths are wearing on local service providers.

ANKORS operates an overdose prevention site in Nelson and offers drug-checking services. On Wednesday, ANKORS executive director Cheryl Dowden criticized the federal government for not moving forward with decriminalization.

“Is it because this is a vulnerable population that there isn’t the political will to act in the way that meets the crisis of the situation? This crisis was declared in 2016 and here we are, almost six years later, and it’s just gotten increasingly worse.”

Dowden said Interior Health has been supportive in its funding of ANKORS’ initiatives, but that resources provided by the province are not meeting demands. Every rural B.C. community, she said, should have an overdose prevention site.

No deaths occurred at such sites last year in B.C., according to the BC Coroners Service.

“The provinces have been pouring some more money into into the overdose crisis. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough for the work that needs to be done.”

Overdose deaths by city

Nelson Fentanyl Task Force co-ordinator Amanda Erickson echoed Dowden’s comments. Users living in rural areas, she said, suffer from barriers such as a lack of transportation options that in turn make it difficult to access services such as safe supply prescription.

Erickson also called for investment in supportive housing, which is designed to assist people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness and includes on-site supports.

Nelson has no such housing, but at the North Shore Inn residents are provided access to the safe drug supply as well as 24-7 mental health and harm-reduction services. The Nelson Committee on Homelessness has said it considers the inn a prototype for what a permanent site could be.

But none of that will happen, Erickson said, without government assistance.

“We’re ready to do the work, but we need more people on the ground,” she said. “Workers are tired. Everyone’s working as hard as they can to support people. But still people are dying.”

The Kootenays also suffers from limited drug-checking services.

ANKORS operates two Fourier-transform infrared spectrometers, which are used to identify ingredients such as fentanyl. Just one of those spectrometers is available in the West Kootenay.

Amelia Martzke, ANKORS’ drug checking program co-ordinator, is based out of Nelson and makes two visits monthly to Castlegar, Trail and Grand Forks where there is no other option for users to have their drugs examined.

That’s not enough for people who are using regularly.

“They’re ultimately going to have periods of time where it’s not accessible for them to test their drugs before they use them,” said Martzke. “Ultimately it just comes down to what we’re able to offer as me being one individual who also has to serve the Nelson area.”

The spectrometers also don’t detect benzodiazepines used for sedation, can’t be treated by naloxone, and are becoming more common in the drug supply.

Fifty per cent of drug samples tested in B.C. in December featured etizolam, a benzodiazepine, according to the Coroners Service. That’s more than three times the rate at which they were detected in July 2020.

Martzke said benzos, as they are colloquially referred to, are detected using testing strips that neither identify the exact chemical nor provide data on amount present.

There are currently no publicly available resuscitation options for benzos.


6 people died per day from B.C.’s toxic drug supply last year

COLUMN: Decriminalization now, but how?

Nelson council provides support letter to fentanyl task force

@tyler_harper |

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