British Columbia has officially been in a public health emergency since April 2016 due to the opioid crisis that is devastating families and communities across the province. Since then more than 5600 British Columbians have died from an illicit drug overdose. It is both tragic and unacceptable.
The opioid crisis is a health crisis, and needs to be treated as such. Stigmatization has made this problem even worse and in 2019 Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, released a report with a single recommendation to decriminalize the people who use drugs in our province.
This week Premier John Horgan announced that he is sending a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to take steps toward decriminalization through amendments to federal legislation. However, as Dr. Henry pointed out there are actions the provincial government could take. Unfortunately, the provincial government has not captured the urgency Dr. Henry implored them to take on this recommendation.
So while I appreciate the Premier’s commitment to advocate on the issue, the provincial government must take steps to amend provincial legislation to decriminalize people who use drugs and I believe we should go further to provide a safe supply of pharmaceutical grade alternatives to further protect people from the toxic street drug supply.
RESPONSE TO OPIOID CRISIS
In April 2016, B.C.’s provincial health officer declared a province wide public health emergency. Since the declaration, more than 3,700 British Columbians have died from a preventable overdose. Overdose deaths have become the leading cause of unnatural deaths in B.C. since 2016. The societal stigma associated with drug use leads many to use drugs alone and hidden, increasing their risk of dying. Overdose deaths in the province have become so pervasive that there has been a measured decrease in life expectancy at birth for all British Columbians. Overrepresented subpopulations in these deaths are Indigenous peoples and males 30 to 59.
One substantial factor in the ongoing overdose crisis is B.C.’s highly toxic illegal drug supply. There is widespread global recognition that the failed war on drugs and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead increased health harms. The predominantly criminal justice-based approach that channels people who use drugs into the criminal justice system does not address what is ultimately a health issue.
These quotes came from the April 2019 report Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in B.C. They are the words of our widely acclaimed provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. In the 15 months since that report was published, more than 1,709 more British Columbians have died from an overdose. The report notes: “a growing number of public safety officials are critically re-evaluating the current approach of prohibition and criminalization of people who use controlled drugs in Canada.”
It’s time we act on Dr. Henry’s single urgent recommendation to decriminalize the people who use drugs in our province. I believe we should go further. Let’s assure that they have a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade alternatives, needed to further minimize the threat of poisonous street drugs, that is truly accessible to those who need it.