Combatting fentanyl epidemic with comedy

Vancouver comic set to host his second comedy show benefitting the Overdose Prevention Society

Between the two of them, they have dealt with death on an unfathomable scale in the last six months alone.

Former-addict-turned comic Mark Hughes knew 20-plus people who have died from fentanyl since September; Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) co-coordinator Sarah Blyth cites stats suggesting 300 overdoses occur on particularly bad days on the Downtown Eastside.

Bearing witness to such a wide-scale epidemic is what brought the two together. While being photographed for a previous Courier story in November, Hughes saw a man overdose near Main and Hastings. He sought out society members at the lone overdose prevention tent at the time, and offered help in the best way Hughes saw fit — laughter.

“Within 15 minutes of seeing him overdose, we had the benefit show confirmed,” Hughes recalled. “Not to be flippant about what’s happening, but in my own way this is how I honour their memories. A lot of these people I know who have died, probably would laugh at a good joke even if it was at their own expense.”

The pair is now teaming up for the second instalment of what is turning into an ongoing series of comedy shows called the Safe Injection Site Comedy Fundraiser, slated for March 28 at Pat’s Pub.

Eight Vancouver-based comedians will perform at the show, with Simon King claiming the headliner spot.

King has performed across North America and landed TV spots on Comedy Network, CBC, CTV, TBS and Comedy Central. The bill is rounded out by other comics including Chris James, Sam Tonning, Ed Konyha, Melanie Rose, Steev Letts, Emma Helsinki Cooper and Trevor Street.

Harm reduction advocates from Karmik will also be in attendance to promote their volunteer naloxone program. Co-founder Munroe Craig trains volunteers in the application of naloxone and those volunteers have manned the OPS tents since late last year.

“Mark was really great in reaching out,” Craig said. “I love it when community members get to know us — that’s the first measure of success for me right there.”

Blyth and Hughes linked up for their first show in December at the Rickshaw Theatre. Like the upcoming gig, all comics performed for free and theatre rental fees were waived. More than $2,300 was raised. The fees being waived for the March 28 show will amount to somewhere around $700.

“People love Mark and they loved his last show,” Blyth said. “They were happy to attend. He’s very frank and honest about himself. That breaks the stigma to a certain degree.”

Hughes spent about a decade on the DTES in the early 2000s and was an intravenous cocaine user. He spent about seven years in prison and his rap sheet includes break and enters, robbery, assault, forcible confinement and various weapons charges. He’s been sober since 2006 and stand-up comedy has been his beacon forward since 2013.

Meanwhile, the Overdose Prevention Society operates two tents and a trailer on the DTES, and trains volunteers to intervene in overdose scenarios. The tents cost the society $150 to operate per day, according to Hughes.

“I’m in recovery, and I know people who are in recovery as well,” Hughes said. “People in recovery relapse quite frequently because that’s just the nature of recovery. But these days it’s Russian roulette. They could have a fight with their girlfriend or boyfriend and go out looking to take the edge off and they’re dead.”

A recent police board report pointed to 922 overdose deaths in B.C. last year. The coroners service reported that 102 people across B.C. died from drug overdoses in February.

The money raised from both Hughes’ previous show and the upcoming gig goes towards paying honorariums for Overdose Prevention Society volunteers who canvas the DTES to help drug users access treatment and other services. Some of those funds have also paid for funeral costs, or travel expenses for out-of-province residents travelling to Vancouver to mourn a loved one.

“It’s a tragic situation when someone has a son or daughter die,” Blyth said. “For some who are living in absolute poverty, they’re not able to make it to the funeral, so we help with all kinds of stuff.”

Blyth didn’t attend the first show, but plans to be in the audience later this month. Comics aren’t mandated to speak to addiction or poverty issues over the course of the evening, but Hughes’ set is typically filled with dark humour that speaks to those issues and more. 

“I’ve seen some of his risqué material but that’s his truth and people aren’t always comfortable with the truth,” Blyth said. “He talks about things that people don’t like discussing, but sometimes these are things that need to be discussed on different levels. This kind of discussion help raise awareness about a lot of issues.” 

Tickets for the March 28 show cost $10.

More info is available online at facebook.com/events/1748541448808374.

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