A KPU professor is in the midst of a study that aims to highlight patterns of drug use along Surrey’s infamous Strip.
Dr. Michael Ma, in the university’s Department of Criminology, says he embarked on his research due to the lack of academic focus on drug use in Surrey, despite the staggering number of overdose deaths in the city.
Current academic research focuses largely on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, he says, while little has been published on patterns in Surrey.
According to data released by the B.C. Coroners Service, 174 people died of drug overdose in Surrey last year. That’s up from 122 in 2016, 76 in 2015, 44 in 2014 and 36 in 2013.
The only city in B.C. with a higher overdose death toll than Surrey was Vancouver, which saw 348 fatalities last year.
But Ma noted Fraser Health had the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths with fentanyl detected in 2017 (377), eclipsing Vancouver Coastal Health’s total of 337.
Ma held a talk at KPU on Feb. 13 revealing the preliminary results of his survey, which is aimed at expanding empirical knowledge of drug use in Surrey, to “shed much needed light on the neglected area of Surrey.”
So far, Ma said 80 people have completed his 41-question survey, with another 120 more to go before his final results are published.
Ma categorizes his findings thus far as “interesting, but not surprising.”
“Some of the things I’ve discovered we may have suspected, but we didn’t know until we conducted the survey,” he said.
“Number one: in terms of the racial mix of people who find themselves in this very problematic substance use, roughly half are self identified as Caucasian, but the other half, about 45 per cent, self-identify as Indigenous or other,” he said. “There is a lot of First Nation representation in terms of problematic substance use on 135A street.”
Ma also found it interesting that the vast majority of people on 135A Street were educated in line with the general population.
“Seventy per cent said they had high school and another 20 odd per cent said they had university or college. It’s very much in line with the mainstream population. The people who find themselves in this problematic substance use are not necessarily these outliers in terms of education and life goals. They actually probably had a pretty traditional presentation before their substance use.”
Ma said it “should be no surprise, but is good to know empirically” that 90 per cent of the people surveyed on 135A Street so far were homeless, nine per cent were in shelters and less than one per cent had some type of traditional housing.
Ninety-nine per cent of respondents said they’d been homeless in the last six months.
Meantime, the median number of times people had overdosed was six, he said.
“That’s quite extreme, to overdose again and again and again,” said Ma.
“In terms of detox, in terms of solutions, the people who find themselves with problematic substance use who live hopelessly on 135A in these tents, many have also sought treatment or detox. So about 60 per cent of these people who live in those tents of 135A street find themselves there after going though detox or treatment, not for lack of wanting.”
In the survey, more than half of respondents said they wanted to go into detox or treatment, but were unable.
“That’s a very sad statistic,” said Ma. “Again, not surprising, but when you find it supported by the evidence of a survey, it’s quite sobering.”
Ma said there are only 60 public detox beds in the Lower Mainland, 30 of which are in Surrey.
“You can imagine the demand for those beds,” said Ma.
Private pay, he added, costs $940 a day for a seven day stay, “so it’s quite a business.”
Ma acknowledged that his survey is a limited snapshot of the overdose epidemic.
“Future studies would look at people not addressed. Who is overdosing in Surrey? People who are home, in their condos, watching Netflix. Those are people who can’t be addressed by this survey,” he said.
“In the future I will try to expand the survey to try and look at other populations, or conduct the survey elsewhere. We have limited time and resources in the academy. I would love to have a much bigger, multi-pronged research project.”
Ma said he is also seeking out more “granular” data from B.C. Coroners Service to get a better understanding around circumstances in fatal overdoses. “I’m looking into that now with a student, doing FOIs, to get more granular data” to look deeper at who is overdosing in Surrey, he said.