It has been nearly six years since the overdose crisis in British Columbia was declared a public health emergency. So far, 6,853 people in the province have passed away due to drug overdoses since January 2016.
In the opening months of 2021 overdoses were spiking. In March 2021 an average of 5.1 people died per day. This is a 41% increase compared to March 2020.
An article published in the BC Medical Journal points out that health guidelines put in place to control the spread of COVID-19 may make the situation worse for drug users. Public health orders to social distance lead to people being more isolating and alone, which can make it more difficult for drug users to be observed by a friend and given a life-saving Naloxone treatment. Also during the pandemic, drug testing and overdose prevention facilities could only operate at limited capacity or not at all.
Another large component of the crisis is the unsafe drug supply on the streets. While toxic substances are partly to blame, a big component is the inconsistencies in dosages. The doses vary widely causing the user’s tolerance to fluctuate making a fatal overdose much more likely.
More specifically, a lot of deaths can be attributed to a relatively new opioid called fentanyl. It is 50 times more toxic than heroin. Fentanyl and other analogues of it were found in 87.1% of illegal drug toxicity deaths. It is often added to other drugs without the users knowing.
Now, an even more potent analogue of fentanyl, carfentanil, was found in 62 samples as of April. That is about the same amount of samples of the analogue found during all of 2020.
To combat this, many people have suggested that the government should offer a safe supply of prescription drugs. In September of 2020 Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a public health order allowing nurses to prescribe alternatives to street drugs. The order was delayed 4 months, potentially costing the lives of many.
This delay has led people to speculate about how high of a priority the overdose crisis is for the B.C. government. Karen Ward, an advocate, told Global News, “It doesn’t feel like an emergency. When Dr. Bonnie Henry gives an order, a provincial health order (for) COVID, it’s the next day. Because it matters.”
These orders finally came into effect in late February.
The Vancouver mayor, Kennedy Stewart, has a proposed plan to decriminalize drugs. The proposal contains plans to allow an exemption for small amounts of certain drugs. It is under heavy backlash from advocates claiming that their knowledge on the subject is not being taken into consideration.
Many advocates agree that the threshold amounts of drugs presented are too low. UBC Professor Dr. Thomas Kerr has stated that it is unclear how the threshold numbers were generated. He goes further and states that the amounts chosen are not indicative of research that was previously conducted.
Two board members have stated that the proposed threshold amounts will lead to more interactions between drug users and drug dealers as well as police. A low threshold will also encourage dealers to sell a stronger product.
They also believe that the police have too much involvement with the development of the plan, but the Mayor of Vancouver aforementioned that no plan would be approved by the cabinet without the backing of law enforcement.
Both the police and advocates have made it clear that their top priority is a safe drug supply.
The future for drug users seems to be clearing up with COVIC-19 easing down and the government making an effort to curb the crisis. The longer it takes to reach a solution the more people who will die. It is clear that the solution is not very simple at all and much more communication must be done with both sides to successfully curb this overdose epidemic.