Five years into an overdose crisis, Premier Christy Clark says government was slow to respond

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      Premier Christy Clark has conceded that the provincial government was slow to react to B.C.’s overdose crisis.

      Interviewed on Global News yesterday (October 26), reporter Sophie Lui asked Clark about a meeting she had with Leslie McBain, a Victoria woman whose son died of a drug overdose in February 2014.

      “She said that she is super frustrated that government is so slow,” Clark replied. “And I was able to say to her, ‘There is nobody who is more frustrated about how slow government is. And I think, you know, it’s just, it’s the nature of the way it works.’ ”

      Clark quickly added that the two discussed where the government has made progress. For example, on April 14, B.C. became the first province in Canada to declare that a rise in overdose deaths constitutes a public-health emergency. She also noted that the so-called opiod-overdose antidote, naloxone, has been distributed to first responders and made available without a prescription. Clark emphasized that a task force announced on July 27 is working on additional recommendations for further action.

      As the Straight has reported many times before, the province’s response to a spike in overdose deaths did not ramp up until several years after a sharp increase was clearly visible in coroner’s data.

      Before 2011, drug-overdose deaths in B.C. hovered around 200 annually. Then, that year, they jumped to 292. The numbers dipped slightly in 2012, to 273. But then they began a steady increase that continues today: to 331 in 2013, 369 in 2014, and 508 in 2015.

      During the first nine months of 2016, B.C. recorded 555 illicit-drug overdose deaths. Sixty-one percent of those incidents involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's cut with heroin, cocaine, and other drugs.

      “Think about it: 555 overdose deaths in British Columbia in nine months,” Clark said last night. “More than the entire number of deaths last year, all of them preventable.”

      Clark emphasized that she considers drug addiction a matter of health.

      “We’ve got to really treat people who are addicted as though they have a health problem first,” she said. “Because if we don’t treat it as a health problem, they stay addicted.”

      But she maintained that the government’s first response should be one of law enforcement.

      “I would say the most important, first defence that we have, is going after the traffickers, putting them in jail, stopping their supply, and getting this terrible drug off the streets. So that’s the first line of defence,” Clark said.

      That could be interpreted as clashing with the perspectives of some of Clark’s top health officials.

      Last June, the Straight reported that B.C.'s health minister, Terry Lake, had called the war on drugs a "failure" and suggested others in government feel the same.

      “My view is that, as a society, we are taking a different sort of approach to drug use than we used to,” Lake said. “I think that any politician that I have talked to understands that the so-called war on drugs has been a failure and that we need to have different approaches. That will take some time.”

      The same day that Lake made those comments, Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, told the Straight that he had recently attended a conference in Vancouver where he noticed the majority of participants supported an end to prohibition.

      “I think a year ago, that was just pie in the sky,” Tyndall said. “But I think we are at a point now when the tide is shifting. These things are highly complicated. But I think most people in the room would go to a Portuguese model in a heartbeat. So I think there was widespread support for that.”

      B.C. Coroners Service statistics reveal a sharp rise in illicit-drug overdose deaths began in 2011.
      Travis Lupick

      Lui didn’t ask Clark about whether prohibition might be exacerbating the overdose crisis or about those government officials suggesting that hard drugs be decriminalized.

      Clark went on to say that more work needs to be done and that additional actions will be taken on the advice of B.C.’s task force.

      “We have our task force, and what they are doing is they are designing how we would make this work, and based on what they design, we’ll come up with a budget for that,” she said. “We have a bigger problem than anybody else and we are already leading in fighting it. But it is going to take money. And we are going to come up with that money.”

      Toward the end of her interview, Lui asked Clark if she had heard the comments of Michelle Jansen, a Coquitlam mother whose teenage son died of a fentanyl overdose earlier this year.

      “As far as I’m concerned, there’s blood on her hands,” Jansen said last September. “The government has labelled fentanyl as a health-care crisis, as an epidemic. Only just five weeks ago, approximately, the premier announces a task force; that’s not good enough.”

      Clark replied: “I’m a mother. I’ve got one child. And I can only imagine, if I had lost him to drugs, how angry I would be. And how I would want to find, I would want to find a way to get somebody to address my hurt, my loss, my anger. And that’s what I heard from her. We couldn’t move fast enough to save her child. But I think we can move fast enough to save a lot more children.”

      According to B.C. Coroners Service data, from 2007 to the end of September 2016, the number of British Columbians who died of an illicit-drug overdose is 3,125.