British Columbia nearly matched its all-time monthly record for suspected illicit-drug overdose deaths in July.
Last month, 175 people lost their lives from overdoses in B.C., compared to 177 in June and 174 in May, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
The rising death toll since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has the cofounder of the Canadian Association for Safe Supply urging governments to move quickly to provide uncontaminated drugs to those in the throes of addiction.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Jordan Westfall said that he’s happy with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s new guidelines discouraging charges for simple possession of illicit drugs.
But with his lived experience using pharmaceutical opioids in university, Westfall remains frustrated that politicians aren’t nearly as willing to provide drugs not tainted with fentanyl and other fatal substances.
“I think they’re more intimidated about safe supply than they are about decriminalization at this point, which is silly because we really need both of them,” Westfall said. “They’re both based on evidence.”
There were an additional 232 suspected illicit-drug overdose deaths in the province in March and April.
That adds up to 760 deaths from March, when COVID-19 cases in B.C. led people to practise more physical distancing.
That, in turn, has made life more dangerous for people addicted to opioids because some are living more isolated lives, according to Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy.
“Prior to COVID-19, overdose deaths were coming down in B.C. for the first time since 2012,” Darcy said in an August 25 government news release. “Several years of efforts to save lives were making a difference.”
Saving lives also saves money: Westfall
Westfall, however, said that the federal and provincial government could do much more to reduce the number of deaths.
For example, he said a new company cofounded by former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall and UBC professor Dr. Martin Schechter could be providing a safe domestic drug supply if the federal government put it on a regulatory fast track for approval. Fair Price Pharma aims to manufacture a clean supply at reasonable prices to reduce the number of overdoses.
“It’s fundamental,” Westfall said. “We have to start right away on that. It’s not a lot of money and it will save a lot of lives.”
In addition, he recommended that provincial governments include injectable hydromorphone and injectable heroin in their formularies and ensure that they’re covered by PharmaCare.
“Those would be the biggest things that they could do right now and they should be doing,” he said.
Westfall pointed out that it would be financially prudent over the long run for governments to provide clean drugs because that would dramatically reduce costs in other areas, including emergency services.
"It's so much cheaper for society to give somebody a safe drug than it is putting them in jail, putting them in a revolving door, or paying for their funeral and hospital bills."
In June, Westfall and Dr. Scott MacDonald cowrote an article in Policy Options magazine about how B.C. opioid users have been unable to obtain the safest drugs during the pandemic. MacDonald is the physician lead at Vancouver’s Providence Crosstown Clinic.
In the article, they pointed out that there’s a problem with provincial guidelines that recommend prescription opioid tablets as a replacement for illicit opioids. That’s because tablets “can be dangerous when they are crushed and injected”.
“They’re not made for injection,” Westfall and MacDonald emphasized. “Crushing and injecting, however, is a common practice for people who are used to injecting their drugs.”
They called that a “glaring omission during an overdose crisis with so many using injection drugs”.
When asked what advice he has for readers of the Straight, Westfall replied: "People shouldn't place judgement the way we do all the time. I think for a lot of people, it doesn't hit them until they lose someone really important to them.
"Try and get educated on the issue," he continued. "Come with a willingness to learn."