Harm reduction group says record 2020 overdose deaths due to B.C. government's flat-footed reaction in pandemic

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      There was a record number of illicit-drug overdose deaths in British Columbia in 2020. And the Canadian Association for Safe Supply has linked this high number to inaction on the part of the provincial government.

      According to the group's cofounder, Jordan Westfall, the province was caught "flat-footed during a pandemic when we needed physical distancing and safe supply".

      In a news release, he said that "few could access that supply and it wasn’t exactly safe, although patients were never told that.”

      "That needs to change," Westfall said, "83,000 people struggle with opioid dependence placing them at higher overdose risk."

      The 1,716 deaths last year was a 74 percent increase of the 984 deaths in 2019.

      One of CASS's biggest concerns is the province's reluctance to expand pharmacare coverage to allow a nonprofit company to distribute diacetylmorphine (heroin) in British Columbia, and everything needed is right here but it seems like the province is gridlocked. Instead of expanding pharma coverage, which is a provincial responsibility, they rely on the federal government to fund more pilot projects.”

      Drug users can take home doses of dilaudid and Ritalin during the pandemic, thanks to a federal exemption under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

      ”The majority of the users receiving these were still having to use street drugs (fentanyl) due to the limited potency and increased tolerances from extended use of fentanyl and benzodiazepine,” another CASS cofounder, David Mendes, said in the news release. “For many, a generic form of dilaudid was prescribed instead due to cost—which does not have the desired and needed effect—or their local doctor or pharmacy would not prescribe anything at all due to their personal beliefs, limited knowledge of addiction, and lack of tested safe supply options such as diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone."

      Meanwhile, the minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, maintained that her government "stepped up our response to this emergency".

      "Before the pandemic, we were making progress," Malcomson said in a statement today. "In 2019, for the first time since 2012, we brought overdose deaths down.

      "And according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, increases in naloxone distribution, added supervised consumption and more treatment options have averted more than 6,000 deaths," she continued. "We are going to keep going and building the culturally safe, evidence-based system of mental health and addictions care that works and saves lives. At the same time, we know people are hurting now and there’s more to do."

      The province added more than 100 new adult treatment beds in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ends on March 31. It also expanded registered and psychiatric nurses' scope of practice to let them prescribe controlled drugs and substances to people who are "underserved".

      "The number of people on opioid agonist treatment (OAT) has grown to more than 23,500 and the number of clinicians prescribing any form of opioid agonist treatment in a given month increased from 773 in June 2017 to 1,622 in November 2020," the province states on its website. "We have also significantly expanded access through Rapid Access to Addictions Care Clinics in all health regions so that more people can access the care they need, where and when they need it."