B.C.'s response to overdose deaths is nothing but criminally inadequate

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      Today (August 31) is International Overdose Awareness Day.

      It’s an occasion that usually comes and goes without anyone ever knowing it occurred. But this year is different.

      During the first six months of 2016, 371 people died of drug overdoses in British Columbia. That compares to 494 during the entire year of 2015. It puts B.C. on track for 742 drug-overdose deaths by the end of this year.

      The government can’t ignore a number that is so far beyond historical precedent. (Before 2015, the all-time high for drug-overdose deaths in B.C. was set all the way back in 1998, when there were 400.) And so the government is trying to make a big deal about International Overdose Awareness Day 2016.

      When I arrived at work this morning, my inbox contained press releases from Health Canada, the provincial government, and Vancouver Coastal Health, all emphasizing the unprecedented efforts they’ve taken to bring the number of deaths back under control.

      There is going to be a lot of uncritical media coverage based on those press releases.

      You’re going to read about Health Canada “moving quickly” to restrict the use of chemicals in the production of fentanyl, a toxic opioid that has poisoned North America’s heroin supply. Newspapers will quote representatives of the provincial government boasting about a special “Joint Task Force on Overdose Response” that was convened last month. From Vancouver Coastal Health, there’s a new study out today about drug impurities in the Downtown Eastside. The agency is using that paper to suggest B.C.’s government is a progressive organization that treats addiction as a health-care issue rather than one for law enforcement.

      All of this is utter bullshit.

      Here are a few other points to keep in mind as you read about everything the government claims it is doing in response to this problem.

      Nearly 2,000 people died in B.C. while the government did nothing

      The crisis that Health Canada and the provincial government claim they are “moving quickly” on did not erupt out of the blue in 2016. It began five years ago, in 2011.

      Before that year, drug-overdose deaths in B.C. hovered around 200 each year.

      Then, in 2011, they jumped all the way to 292. The number dipped slightly in 2012, to 273. But then it began a steady increase that continues today, to 331 in 2013, 367 in 2014, and 494 in 2015, on track for 742 by the end of 2016.

      That is, in the four-and-a-half years since a spike in overdose deaths was clearly visible at the end of 2011, drug overdoses have killed 1,836 people in British Columbia.

      No level of government did anything about it until 2016.

      A sharp increase in drug-overdose deaths in B.C. clearly began in 2011, yet the government did little to respond until 2016.
      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      No help where it’s needed

      The areas where the problem is most acute are the areas where there are the fewest options available for help.

      When it comes to progressive actions on illicit drugs, the City of Vancouver remains years ahead of its neighbours. In jurisdictions like Surrey and Abbotsford, even needle distribution—the most basic of harm-reduction programs—remains controversial and faces opposition.

      Meanwhile, a cursory glance at a breakdown of the B.C. Coroners Service statistics described above shows that numbers of overdose deaths are increasing far more significantly outside of Vancouver, most acutely in cities like Surrey and Abbotsford.

      Vancouver has stalled on harm reduction for a decade

      Vancouver Coastal Health is the darling of progressive groups who oppose the war on drugs.

      It does not deserve that reputation.

      For more than a decade now, the organization that operates North American’s only low-barrier supervised-injection site has rested on the laurels it receives for allowing that facility to exist.

      But go back and read newspaper clippings from the late 1990s and look at what was proposed to meet that era’s crisis of overdose deaths.

      It was not one supervised-injection site. The Vancouver/Richmond Board of Health (from which Vancouver Coastal Health later emerged) heard that four or more sites were needed for Vancouver. Its members agreed with that assessment. But the appropriate follow-up action was never taken.

      Thirteen years later, the back alleys around Insite remain crowded with addicts who can’t bear to wait in line at the overwhelmed facility on East Hastings Street.

      A new study released on International Overdose Awareness Day (August 1) revealed that 90 percent of heroin tested in the Downtown Eastside contains fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid responsible for many deaths in B.C.
      Travis Lupick

      Forced to play Russian roulette

      If you are addicted to heroin—addicted in a truly helpless sense of the word—you have virtually no option but to play a daily game of Russian roulette.

      According to the study Vancouver Coastal Health released this morning, 90 percent of the Downtown Eastside’s heroin supply contains fentanyl. That is, when you buy heroin on the street in Vancouver, there is a nine in 10 chance you are putting a potentially lethal poison into your body that you know could kill you.

      An alternative exists. At the corner of West Hastings and Abbott, a small group of addicts receives a medical-grade supply of heroin at regulated intervals. That removes those users from the illicit drug trade, the life of crime that comes with it, and the risks other addicts are forced to take when buying from a poisoned supply of heroin on the street.

      It is a program—not a solution, but part of a larger response to the challenge of addiction—to which a slowly growing number of doctors and researchers are paying attention. But for which government has little appetite, despite the number of lives it might save.

      Deep mistrust

      Here’s one version of an anecdote I’ve heard a half-dozen times over the course of the last couple of years.

      I’m talking to a Vancouver resident addicted to heroin and I ask them what response they want from the government.

      They don’t reply with a request for another supervised-injection site or with a futile demand for the government to finally decriminalize drugs.

      Instead, they scowl.

      They explain that the rising tide of overdose deaths that has taken their friends has not been the result of government inaction, but rather of deliberate policy.

      It’s designed to kill them to make way for a new and rich neighbourhood that will remove the Downtown Eastside from the map.

      This is not an argument that was told to me once by one crazy man in an alley. I’ve heard it over and over again.

      Of course, it is not true. But that is the level of mistrust that this segment of society has for authorities.

      These drug users cannot believe that there is any other explanation for such a failure, but that the government wants them to die.

      Today (August 31) at noon, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users will meet at the intersection of Main Street and East Hastings and march in a protest of government inaction. Participants are asked to wear black.

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