On April 14, 2016, British Columbia’s minister of health declared a public health emergency. This called for quick action in the health care system to stop people from dying. Fentanyl, a strong opioid that was present in five per cent of overdose deaths in 2012, increased in presence to 85 per cent in 2018.
To date, communities have put a lot of time and effort into overdose prevention services. This includes: Take Home Naloxone; involving people who use drugs in health care planning; a focus on Indigenous wellness; anti-stigma campaigns; drug testing; and access to lower-barrier treatment options. Despite these efforts, overdose deaths have continued to increase each year since 2012. By mid-2015, overdose deaths surpassed those in the 1997-1998 public health emergency. Opioid-related overdose is now the leading cause of death among those aged 30-39. One thing we know for sure is that the main cause of continued death is the lack of access to a regulated and safe drug supply.
To meet community need for health and safety, we need to shift the way we approach drugs and the people who use them. Drug use is often a response to pain, trauma and social isolation. Treating our current public health emergency as a health issue rather than a criminal issue is a step in the right direction. When we criminalize drugs and people who use them, we create stigma. This stigma forces people to conceal their unsafe drug use and further isolates them.
Currently, four people a day die from overdose in B.C. According to the B.C. Coroner’s Report, the number of overdose deaths is 13 times higher than the rate of homicide.
Despite our best efforts in prevention, we still have not seen a cut in death rates or in rates of overdose. We are in limbo, employing Band-Aid solutions to bigger issues that harm us and the people we love. Our best research has shown that the only way to stop the overdoses is for people to have access to a safe and regulated drug supply. Evidence shows that a safer supply decreases the death and crime rate, lowers health care costs and decreases the rate of problematic substance use.
No matter how progressive and available our care and treatment programs are, we continue to push illegal drug use to the margins and make it difficult for people to access services when and where they need them. Decriminalization of all drug possession is now seen as a critical component of a complete response to the overdose crisis. Safe supply options for people who use drugs are another key component. Without addressing the toxic supply of drugs, our efforts to combat the crisis will remain futile.
Providing services to help deal with the underlying traumas and challenges facing people who use drugs is an important part of the provincial response to our public health crisis. With this said, we have not responded to the new reality — the street drug supply is toxic. The combination of a lack of access to a safe supply, isolation caused by stigma, and not having access to sterile drug-use equipment leads to death and disease. Our only way out is to provide a safe and regulated drug supply, along with services to help our loved ones deal with underlying traumas.
READ MORE: Column: Harm reduction education
— This column is brought to you courtesy of the Coalition of Substance Users Organization (CSUN). It is the second of four columns the CSUN will be contributing to the Observer. The first column appeared in the Feb. 20 newspaper and can be found online at quesnelobserver.com.