B.C.’s first minister of mental health and addictions made a passionate speech about the province’s overdose crisis yesterday (September 26). At the 2017 convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), Judy Darcy said the status quo cannot continue.
“Despite the heroic and courageous efforts and dedicated people on the front lines of this crisis, we know that we’re still losing four people a day,” she said. “We cannot allow this to become the new normal.”
Darcy, the NDP MLA for New Westminster, listed a number of actions she said the NDP government has in motion. They include:
- Expanding access to naloxone (Narcan), the so-called overdose antidote that’s used to reverse the effects of opioids
- Expanding access to injection hydromorphone, a narcotic that’s similar to heroin and sells under the brand name Dilaudid, which people addicted to opioids can obtain from a doctor
- Improving access to pain-management services
- Making investments in government partnerships with Indigenous communities, which Darcy noted are disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis
- Establishing new “one-stop shops for substance-use” in 10 areas hit worst by the crisis
“We will be dramatically increasing our harm-reduction measures,” Darcy told the room of politicians, bureaucrats, and stakeholders. “I want to say, loud and clear, harm reduction works. Harm reductions works. Without the huge expansion we’ve had of naloxone, without the huge expansion of harm reductions sites, hundreds, if not thousands more lives would have been lost.”
Darcy emphasized that the province is also looking at making significant changes to the mental-health and addictions systems as a whole.
“Beginning to put the building blocks in place for a better system for mental health and addiction so, down the road—not overnight but down the road—we truly do have a system where you ask once and you get help fast,” she said.
The UBCM session on the overdose crisis was billed as a discussion of “new approaches” but, in reality, it was mostly a presentation of government interventions that the City of Vancouver has deployed over the last few years and an encouragement for other municipalities to adopt similar measures.
The list of speakers included Karen Ward, a Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) member who’s become one of the strongest voices in discussions of the overdose epidemic from the community of drug users itself.
“Why are they dying?” she asked. “They are dying because they are alone. Why are they alone? Because of stigma. The oppression of drug users is why they are using alone. So that no one knows that they use drugs. That is the extent of the isolation that is the result of criminalized behavior. That is how all these things connect.”
Ward argued that the explosion of deaths attributed to fentanyl in recent years is the result of specific political decisions and laws that drive people who struggle with an addiction underground.
“This is not something that came out of nowhere,” she said. “This is the result of years and generations and over 100 years of choices that have been made. This needs to be the end of the war on drugs.”
Since 2012, the number of fatal overdoses in B.C. has increased from 269 to more than 1,500 projected for this year. During the first seven months of 2017, the synthetic-opioid fentanyl was detected in 81 percent of illicit-drug-overdose deaths in B.C.
The UBCM discussion was led by Mark Tyndall, executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, deputy provincial health officer for B.C., and professor of medicine at UBC. He also took a critical position against the war on drugs.
“Fentanyl is a textbook example of what happens when prohibition takes over,” he said. “Substances get easier and easier to import, more and more potent, and this is what we’re left with.”
Tyndall explained that police-enforcement that targets drug users pushes people who are struggling with addiction into an “endless cycle” of troubles with police, without the underlying problems of their addiction ever being addressed. He similarly argued that law-enforcement agencies will not be able to stop overdose deaths even if they concentrate on traffickers.
“We need to really focus on helping the people that are currently dependent on these drugs and deal much more with the demand side than the supply side,” Tyndall said.
“I know it is quite tempting to say we should throw a lot of resources at trying to stop these dealers and stop these imports,” he continued, “but I think it’s a fool’s game.”More