By Scott Bernstein
British Columbia is in the midst of two public-health crises: COVID-19 and the accidental poisoning of people who use a toxic and unregulated supply of illegal drugs.
In the first case, we followed the advice of the well-respected Dr. Bonnie Henry and—for the most part and with great hardship—we’ve been kind, calm, and kept our communities safe. For the second crisis—what we commonly call the overdose crisis—our response has been starkly different.
Since the provincial government declared it to be a public-health emergency in B.C. in 2016, more than 6,000 people have died of overdoses in this province. That’s roughly four people dying every day. By any measure possible, we have failed to mount an appropriate emergency response. In B.C., where to date we have kept control of COVID-19 fatalities, the overdose crisis continues to rage on at a deadly pace.
The lack of action to address the threat of the illegal drug market exposes an absence of political will and leadership in the province that is astounding, given the extent of the crisis. More than four years into a public-health emergency, the government of Premier John Horgan has failed to adequately mobilize an urgent emergency response proportional to the significant threat of accidental poisoning to thousands of people of B.C.
As the body count climbs and the province’s own public-health experts continue to call for change, the government appears to be stalled in its response. In April of 2019, a detailed proposal for a “made in B.C.” model of decriminalization of drugs was proposed by B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Henry. The idea was dismissed within hours by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth as something that only the federal government could do. Only months ago, the government refused to commit to considering Henry’s recommendations in its ongoing reform of the Police Act.
Safe supply has been implemented within B.C., although it remains at a pilot-project scale with little uptake from the medical community. There is no broader commitment from the B.C. government that it will take steps to ensure access to those dependent on drugs in the province who would benefit from receiving pharmaceutical-grade drugs instead of relying on the deadly illegal market. The current Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, continues to remain mostly silent about the overdose crisis.
In addition, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, which was created by the current government to be a primary tool in addressing the overdose crisis, has, in fact, little operational power within government, as well as no real budget or ability to coordinate a response proportional to the disaster it was meant to confront.
With the NDP’s recent vague promises about their response to the overdose crisis if given the reins of government again, it remains unclear whether anything will significantly change if they are given a majority.
In order to move forward, we need to commit to an evidence-based, progressive, and articulated response to the overdose crisis. The first order of business should be to fully fund the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions so that it is able to respond to the crisis as is urgently needed. We must scale up safe supply to remove barriers to access and provide a wider range of choices, informed by people who use drugs themselves.
Decriminalization should be done urgently as well, either by receiving a federal exemption to the criminal laws from Ottawa or amending the Police Act to make enforcement of simple drug possession the lowest priority of the police.
Finally, the new government must also ensure that harm reduction in the province is scaled up far beyond what is currently available, and that services such as overdose prevention are able to continue to operate with sensible COVID precautions in place.
It is long overdue to mount a response equal to this urgent public-health emergency. Six thousand lives lost is unacceptable. Provincial governments must be held accountable—not only for their actions but for their inaction in the face of this continuing crisis that has taken so many lives, particularly when experts and people most at risk of dying have been clear on how to move forward.
We are in dire need of a new approach and a government that listens to experts and treats the crisis as the urgent public-health emergency it is.