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Comox Valley group aims to stop overdose deaths, reduce stigma

As the overdose crisis worsens throughout B.C., a local advocacy group is providing a variety of services in its efforts to stop accidental deaths and to reduce the stigma attached to drug abuse.
From left: Brandi Kothlow, Sue Edwards and Nicole Morrison run a voluntary Friday night service. Scott Stanfield photo

As the overdose crisis worsens throughout B.C., a local advocacy group is providing a variety of services in its efforts to stop accidental deaths and to reduce the stigma attached to drug abuse.

Comox Valley Street Outreach is building a network of people with lived and living experience in substance abuse who are interested in using their expertise for the greater good of the community.

Formed by the Comox Valley Community Action Team (CAT), CVSO conducted a cleanup April 19 in a wooded area behind the 7-Eleven on Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay. The area contains an excessive amount of garbage and paraphernalia, including hypodermic needles.

“I call them rig digs,” said CVSO program co-ordinator/founder David Clarke, a peer advisor with CAT. “Kids play in there. That’s somebody’s backyard, basically. They climb over their fence and play in that bush.”

He said the scene was the same in a bush behind the BMX track in Cumberland, where he recalls someone had lived until the bush was bulldozed. Two years later, Clarke said needles are poking out of the ground.

“I’ve already picked about 50 capped and un-capped needles out of there. I would like bylaw enforcement to work with us, if they see any major amounts of needles. We could go out as a team and clean it up, and build community at the same time.”

Clarke, who grew up in Cumberland, says he has done some regrettable things, such as stealing, to access drugs. There was a point when he didn’t want to go home due to the stigma and shame he felt as a drug user. But one day he decided to make a change, and acted upon an urge to help people. He hooked up with CAT, and now has a group that provides peer outreach and harm reduction, in addition to the rig digs.

“I wanted to create jobs for those people, they’re experts in the field,” Clarke said. “They’ve narcanned countless people. We are the front line workers. We’re on scene before the ambulance. We’re the ones saving all the lives, mainly.”

Three members of CVSO — Nicole Morrison, Sue Edwards and Brandi Kothlow — have branched out to offer a voluntary Friday night service. The ladies have intervened in several overdoses, dealt with cases of hypothermia, and even encountered an individual who had been pepper sprayed. Among other things, they provide harm reduction supplies, drug testing and on-the-spot naloxone training.

“We need to be out there,” said Morrison, who is a nurse. “They need us. We have what they need.”

She recalls a “recreational drug user” who intended to do meth but wound up face down “inhaling dirt products into his lungs.” The team was able to stimulate the man and got him going. Afterwards, the man was shocked to hear what had happened to him.

“With the opiates, what happens is it suppresses the breathing,” Morrison said. “The benzodiazepines on top of that also has a respiratory suppressant, so now you’re working doubly against that. A lot of people on the street don’t know what it does to the body.”

Clarke said the Comox Valley needs a safe supply and a safe consumption site to avoid “preventable deaths,” which tend to happen when people use drugs in isolation.

“We have no clue what we’re putting in our bodies, and it’s poisoning us,” he said. “It’s an illicit, poisoned drug supply, and it’s killing us, literally.”

Morrison, Edwards and Kothlow could use some extra clothing and tents for their Friday night service.

“We really need a storage unit,” Morrison said.

To help out and for more information, find Comox Valley Street Outreach on Facebook.

READ: B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

David Clarke, program co-ordinator/founder of Comox Valley Street Outreach. Scott Stanfield photo