Four years into a sharp increase in drug-overdose deaths in B.C., the premier has announced additional measures and a dedicated task force aimed at bringing the epidemic back under control.
“This is an urgent health emergency,” Christy Clark said at a press conference in Vancouver this morning (July 27). “We need to deal with it right away.
“It is urgent that we start this work because lives are being lost every day,” she continued, “over 370 lives lost in just the first half of this year. It is a preventable tragedy. And we are committed to doing everything we can as soon as we can to stop it.”
During the first six months of 2016, 371 people have died of drug-overdose deaths in B.C.
During the whole of 2015, there were 494 fatal overdoses in the province.
That was up from 367 in 2014, 331 in 2013, and 273 in 2012.
With the exception of 2012, fatal overdoses in B.C. have increased every year since 2008.
A public-health emergency was declared on April 14 of this year.
At today’s press conference, Clark spoke alongside B.C. health minister Terry Lake to unveil a number of new actions the provincial government is taking.
It has called on the federal government to restrict access to machines used to press illicit pills such as fake Oxycontin tablets. It’s also asked Ottawa to limit access to other equipment used in the production of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more dangerous than heroin that’s partly to blame for the increase in overdose deaths.
Fentanyl was found in 31 percent of fatal overdoses in B.C. in 2015, up from 25 percent in 2014, 15 percent in 2013, and five percent in 2012.
The drug’s high potency makes it relatively easy to smuggle over borders and distribute while evading law enforcement.
At the press conference, Lake called attention to that problem and said law-enforcement agencies, including the Canada Border Services Agency, need to shift tactics to account for the dangers associated with even very small amounts of fentanyl.
“Fentanyl can be ordered over the Internet and delivered in very small quantities that escape inspection by Canada Border Services,” he said. “Because this is such a powerful drug, it doesn’t take very much in order to make the pills that we see on the street today. So we are asking them to look at the ability to not only go after the small doses that would be sent in the mail, but also precursors, and take some action on making sure the precursors to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are tracked and eliminated as much as possible as well.”
A media release issued in conjunction with the press conference states the province is also working to establish “testing services” people can use to determine whether illicit drugs have been contaminated with less desirable substances such as fentanyl.
Moving forward, the task force, headed by provincial health officer Perry Kendall and Clayton Pecknold, director of police services, will be making recommendations for additional measures on an ongoing basis.
Clark said those suggestions would be acted upon “immediately if we possibly can”.
Since the declaration of a health emergency in April, Vancouver Coastal Health, the agency responsible for health care in the City of Vancouver and Richmond, has been working on plans to increase the number of supervised-injection sites in Vancouver from the existing two to a total of seven.
Earlier this month, Fraser Health, the authority that oversees hospitals and clinics in Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster, and most of the Lower Mainland, revealed it was also in discussions to bring supervised-injection sites to some of those cities.
Clark said the province is also working to improve the availability of drug-treatment programs.
“We are going to improve access to treatment through our opioid substitution treatment program, and we are also going to provide access to recovery for people who use drugs and want to stop,” she said. "Drug overdoses are absolutely senseless deaths. Every one of them is a preventable tragedy that families feel in the worst possible way.”