Manitoba on track to lose more people than ever to overdose deaths this year

Manitoba is poised to lose a record number of people to overdoses from illicit substances this year, based on drug-related deaths reported during the first six months of 2021.

Between January and June of this year, 199 Manitobans died of overdoses after consuming fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine or combinations of illicit drugs, according to data from the office of the chief medical examiner.

If the same number of overdose deaths are reported in the second half of the year, Manitoba will exceed the grim total for 2020, when 374 people died of overdoses. 

“Sadly it is not a surprise to me, but these numbers are people,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba, who lost her son Jessie to a fentanyl overdose in 2014.

“Those numbers take us up until June, and as we all know, we haven’t even hit the summer months. We know that those those numbers will be high, so I expect that our [total 2021] numbers will be even higher.”

The data for the first six months of this year, which Kolb obtained this week from the medical examiner’s office and provided to CBC News, indicates dozens of overdoses involved more than one illicit substance, especially fentanyl and another drug.

This backs up what advocates for people with addictions have been saying for years: many substance users don’t know precisely what they are consuming or don’t know how much of any particular substance is present in what they’re ingesting.

On Tuesday, city council’s protection, community services and parks committee voted unanimously in favour of a motion to require the city to continue to support the creation of supervised consumption sites that have the potential to reduce overdose deaths.

The city has no intention of operating one of these sites. Instead, it’s working with non-profit harm-reduction organizations in the hopes the provincial, federal or Indigenous governments take the lead on operating a supervised consumption site.

Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), who chairs council’s protection committee, said these sites would not just save lives, but remove some drug use from public places.

“This is already happening across the city. People call every day to say, ‘Folks are occupying my transit stop and they’re using drugs,'” Rollins said.

“Unless we’re really serious about supervised consumption sites in the city, this is going to continue to happen on city streets.”

Rollins said approving such a site is not much different than approving a medical clinic.

In a report published in June, Winnipeg chief administrative officer Michael Jack said the city does not require provincial approval to sanction a supervised consumption site — but provincial funding would be required to operate it successfully.

Premier Heather Stefanson, who was sworn in one week ago, has yet to offer a policy position on supervised consumption sites.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said in a statement the provincial government is working on a mental-health action plan.

Last-Kolb said it’s past time for politicians at all three levels of government to act.

“It is not all right for people to autopsy our children every single day knowing that they are dying from drugs bought off the street,” she said.

“I feel frustrated because I believe the city would support a safe consumption site, but they need money to do that. And if they can’t work with government — if government won’t work with them to give them that money — then everything sits at a stall.”

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