By Guy Felicella
When I learned that this month’s report from the Coroners Service was going to be another record, I was numb. I still am—175 lives lost in June in B.C..
Some of those I knew or had families I know. They are devastated by this ongoing and senseless loss. I’m so saddened for them and ask you all to take a moment to think about those individuals and the communities they’ve left behind.
We have two public health emergencies, and we’ve met the challenge of one. Yet the other continues, getting worse.
We all know now how deeply and profoundly COVID-19 has hit people who use drugs. It has disrupted the drug supply and made it more dangerous and toxic than ever. It has impacted people’s ability to access harm-reduction services. And it’s caused many to relapse from their recovery.
We've done really well at following Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice on COVID-19. And following that advice has meant flattening the curve of the pandemic. I wish we would do the same with her advice to end our overdose public-health emergency.
If we listened to Dr. Henry—and to the many other experts, from scientists to doctors to people with lived experience—I don’t think we would be here today.
If we listened, we would have decriminalized people who use drugs long ago. We would actually—really—treat substance use like a health issue. Instead, we criminalize, not just for possession but for surviving. We sweep people off the streets; we displace them from homeless camps; we do street checks and red zoning—all of which prevent people from accessing health care, harm reduction, and recovery services. It pushes them away instead of inviting them in.
If we listened, we would have access to an actual safer supply. That would mean real pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply that would include heroin and injectable hydomorphone and would consider how people use their drugs, whether it’s by injection or inhalation. And it wouldn’t just be doctors holding the keys: we would have multiple pathways to access so that no one would be denied treatment because a doctor didn’t feel comfortable trying to save their life.
If we listened, we wouldn’t have turned wait lists for detox and recovery into death lists. People would be able to access a continuum of care that meets them where they're at and supports their journey to wellness. It would be patient-centred, not prescriber-centred.
If we listened, we would understand the need to provide social supports to stabilize people—adequate social assistance, dignified housing, employment, reconnecting with their families.
If we listened, we wouldn’t still be fighting a failed war on drugs that drives people to a toxic drug supply. Our current approach to drug policy would be torn down and we would start over again.
If we listened, we wouldn’t stigmatize or discriminate against people who use drugs. We wouldn’t make policy based on the perception that some lives matter more than others.
B.C. has been fighting this crisis for more than four years. It’s time now for the federal government to step up in that fight. Creating a permanent, accessible safer supply and decriminalizing people who use drugs should have happened long ago. It could do away with the persistent stigma around drug use and save many lives in the process. For such things to be possible, federal policymakers need to address their own prejudices and stigmatizing attitudes against people who use drugs.
One hundred and seventy-five lives lost is a new monthly record in B.C. I'm tired of setting records. And I'm tired of seeing people in my community die, and die waiting—waiting for access to a safer supply, waiting for access to detox, waiting to get into recovery, waiting for the regulatory colleges to see and act on this emergency.
We need to stop waiting. We need to stop trying to meet the needs of the colleges and the far too many doctors who refuse to step up and support people with addictions and start meeting people who use drugs where they’re at.
And we need to start now.