"America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse," former U.S. President Richard Nixon says at the beginning of Painkiller: Inside the Opioid Crisis, a new documentary about B.C.'s epidemic of drug-overdose deaths. "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive."
The speech was recorded on June 17, 1971, but the film by Matt Embry and supported by Telus Health makes clear its repercussions are still very much felt today.
Dr. Dan Morhaim, an emergency-medicine physician and state representative for northwest Baltimore, Maryland, explains how.
"My conclusion is the war on drugs has been a war on people," he says. "After 50 years of the ear on drugs, it is a colossal policy failure....Everything is worse. More violence, more drugs, more use, more dieses spread. There is not one data point that's better."
From there, the film zeros in on Vancouver, the epicenter of an unprecedented health emergency that claimed more than 4,000 lives across Canada last year.
Painkiller features the stories of Jill and David Cory and their son, Ben, who struggled with an addiction to opioids before he died of an overdose, and Petra Shcultz, who's son Danny died of an accidental fentanyl poisoning, among others. One of its most moving anecdotes comes from Richard Rego, a clinical director with Calgary's Beacon Pharmacy.
"I've never really understood the power of an overdose—and, like I said, I've been doing this for a long, long time—until I saw it myself and I injected a patient with Narcan and actually brought him back.
"When I say I learned about the power of addiction at that moment, the first thing he said to me after I injected him with the Narcan and he woke up from a fatal overdose, perhaps, right? Was he called me a name and he said, 'You ruined my fix. I think about that.
"I think about that. I think about the power of that statement, where you just saved somebody's life and he was mad at you about it.
"But it doesn't end there," Rego continues. "This was a Monday night. I was off on Tuesday, only to come in on Wednesday morning to be told that he overdosed and died 24 hours later on Tuesday evening.
"There it is. That's it. That's addiction."
Painkiller is nearing the completion of a cross-country tour with a screening in Vancouver at the SFU Fletcher Challenge Theatre (555 West Hastings Street) scheduled for this Monday (November 26) at 6 p.m. and in Surrey this Thursday (November 29). The film is now also available to watch for free online via Telus Health.
It explores large societal factors that have contributed to the crisis B.C. and most of North America finds itself in today.
"Most of the deaths occurring now are because we have a contamination of the illegal drug supply with a drug called fentanyl," Vancouver Coastal Health's Dr. Patricia Daly says. That is a largely a result of prohibition, she makes clear.
"If they [doctors] cut people off [prescription drugs], then people may turn to the illegal market," Daly says. "And that's where the risk then comes of exposure to fentanyl and other contaminates in the illegal drug supply that could cause death."
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control's Dr. Jane Buxton relays the effect.
"I've never seen anything like this in my career," she says. "We've had instances where there was a slight increase in overdose deaths, for example. But that was very, very minor compared to what we're seeing now."
The film concludes with several of the B.C. health-care officials it includes making a case for an end to the war on drugs and for Canada's government to end criminal penalties for the personal possession of all illicit narcotics.
"I would call upon the federal government to be bold," Daly says. "We are dealing with a crisis here. People are dying every day. This shouldn't be about ideology. It should be about what the data shows us. And it tells us that if we were to, right now, decriminalize possession of all illegal drugs, we could reduce the risk that people might die from overdoses."