VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Since British Columbia declared a public health emergency 1,651 days ago, in April 2016, thousands of people have died of overdoses in the province, with the grim death toll rising by another 127 last month.
It’s been called an “opioid crisis,” an “overdose crisis,” and a “drug toxicity crisis.”
But those terms don’t capture the true nature of the emergency, according to City of Vancouver drug policy advisor Karen Ward.
“Just to be clear, it’s a prohibition crisis,” she said. “Policy is the problem.”
Unlike B.C.’s other health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, which doesn’t yet have a cure or vaccine, she said the experts know how to save the lives of people who use drugs and only a lack of political will allows the carnage to continue.
Ward hopes to see more from the province’s political parties as they enter the final days of the election.
The immediate solutions she wants to see broadly fit into two categories: harm reduction and decriminalization.
Reducing the harm
In some respects, B.C. has led the way on harm reduction in Canada, including with the opening of North America’s first sanctioned safe injection site, Insite, in 2003.
New injection facilities, also known as overdose prevention sites, have stirred controversy more recently, including vehement opposition from some residents and a BC Liberal candidate and former Vancouver mayor, Sam Sullivan, who called them “primitive” and “unethical.”
Before the election, the BC NDP introduced new measures to increase the accessibility to pharmaceutical alternatives to toxic illicit drugs. Entrenched drug users are much safer taking regulated doses of opioids rather than street drugs with unknown amounts of fentanyl and other dangerous compounds, they said.
While Ward welcomes these initiatives as progress, she said they should have happened years ago.
“There’s such a hesitancy of the NDP to really address this in a serious way,” she said.
In September, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued an order authorizing nurses to prescribe such medications.
Coquitlam-Maillardville NDP candidate Selina Robinson said her party would continue pursuing harm-reduction measures if reelected.
“I don’t know anyone who says that we need to encourage people to be using drugs. I think we get that, but we also need to make sure that people stay alive so that we can help them find a healthier path,” she said.
Scott Bernstein, the Green Party candidate in Vancouver-Kingsway and director of policy with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said he also supports the policy.
BC Liberal Norm Letnick, running for reelection in Kelowna-Lake Country, did not answer when asked repeatedly whether his party would move forward with the expansion of safe supply. He said his party is focused on improving the treatment and prevention of addiction.
Decriminalizing drug use
Many experts and advocates have long called for the decriminalization of drugs and the people who use them.
Ward said criminalization harms drug users and society at large by reinforcing deadly stigmas.
“It’s so entrenched, this idea that drugs are bad and people who use them are bad, that we just can’t get around it – and it’s so sad to me because we’re going to so regret this,” she said. “The way people are ostracized from everything is profoundly violent and irrational.”
In September, then-premier John Horgan followed the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in formally calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to decriminalize drug possession for personal use.
— NEWS 1130 (@NEWS1130) July 9, 2020
But the federal government has long made it clear it has little enthusiasm for such a change, which Henry, B.C.’s health officer, noted in a 2019 report urging the provincial government to implement de-facto decriminalization by forcing police to deprioritize the enforcement of simple possession through a ministerial order, an amendment to the Police Act, or both.
The NDP was criticized for ignoring that advice despite its purported support of decriminalization.
“It’s very telling because we’ve idolized Bonnie Henry, for good cause,” said Green candidate Bernstein, referring to her leadership in the response to COVID-19.
“But when Dr. Henry released her report around decriminalization, it was kiboshed within hours by [then-solicitor general] Mike Farnworth, who said this is not the jurisdiction of the province,” he said.
Letnick said decriminalization is not in the Liberal platform, but he is open to working on all proposed solutions to the drug crisis.
“There are always other ideas out there as to what we should be doing and, if I’m successful in being re-elected for Kelowna-Lake Country, then I would work with all my colleagues in the Legislature on all sides of the house,” he said.
The NDP platform says the party will “develop a made-in-B.C. solution” to decriminalization if Ottawa doesn’t do it.
“The perfect solution is to get the federal government to act, to take action so that, nationwide, we are saving lives,” Robinson said. “But [Henry’s proposal] is one of the options we can explore if we can’t get any action there, then it’s certainly something that we’re willing to look at.”
‘No one thing’ to solve crisis
Robinson, Bernstein and Ward were all critical of the Liberals’ message on drugs during the election. The centre-right party has been hesitant to support harm reduction and has linked crime and public safety concerns to the overdose crisis.
The Greens points to dropping crime in Vancouver as a whole while @mdobrinskaya says fears over OPS sites are unfounded and while the former BC Liberals took a science-based approach to the drug crisis and harm reduction, she sees the current party heading a different direction.
— Ash 'I work from home now' Kelly (@AshDKelly) October 21, 2020
But Letnick said he supports all elements of the Four Pillars approach to drugs, which includes harm reduction, as well as law enforcement, treatment and prevention. He said his party just wants to rebalance the equation in favour of those other three pillars.
He said the province needs to better fund addiction treatment, especially expanding access to beds in abstinence-based recovery programs.
The Liberals would also improve mental health care supports, the foster care system and education to prevent people from falling into addiction in the first place, Letnick said.
Letnick said the Liberals also plan on “beefing up” police and the prosecution service to address the drug crisis.
“There’s no one thing that we can do to solve this; we have to promote more resources and more efforts on a whole range of initiatives,” he said.
Bernstein said the Greens also support broader, more long-term fixes for addiction and drug-related deaths – but he wants to see urgent action taken to prevent the deaths happening now.
Robinson said her party has expanded access to treatment beds and prevention and plans to continue that work.
Meanwhile, Ward, who lives in the Downtown Eastside, said she’s disheartened to see politicians dither while an average of four people die from an overdose every day in B.C.
“We are going to wear this as our history,” she said.