VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — As thousands continue to die, many at a young age, due to the opioid crisis — B.C.’s chief coroner wants to know why it’s not more of an issue on the federal campaign trail.
Lisa Lapointe is tired and frustrated and she wants whoever will be in charge of the country as of Sept. 20 to take action to address the poisoned drug supply, which has killed roughly six people each day in 2021. Drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for people aged 19 to 39. It remains the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the province.
“I haven’t seen a great deal of debate federally on this issue. Certainly, here in B.C, it’s a significant issue. We’ve had almost 8,000 people die in our communities since 2016 as a result of substance use and we know other provinces and territories are also seeing people dying as a result of harms associated with toxic substances,” she says.
“What I would like to see is more emphasis on the issue of substance use generally, dependency, mental health support, because we know a lot of people fall into substance use because they’re trying to manage other issues.”
She says whether you’ve dealt with substance abuse or know someone who has, the crisis is a national issue.
“We’ve heard the five federal party leaders mention mental health repeatedly while campaigning, and Lapoint wonders: why aren’t opioids and drug use mentioned in the same breath?” she asks.
“We know more than 20,000 people have died in Canada, as a result of opioid use now — that’s not including all of the other stimulants. That number of people dying is really just an indicator of the number of people experiencing problematic substance use and all of the harms associated. The deaths are a terrible and tragic outcome but we also see social disorder. We see homelessness. We see families disrupted,” explains Lapointe, who also backs decriminalizing drug possession.
“People have been punished and we have spent millions, and millions, and millions of dollars arresting people and prosecuting people and jailing people for what is, essentially, a medical issue. Punishment does not work. But along with decriminalization is the acknowledgment that we haven’t done enough to address substance use issues. We don’t have enough resources and an acknowledgment that we need to be innovative.”
‘The biggest issue I see in this province, in terms of death, is drug toxicity’
Lapointe also wants more done to address the fact not everyone will choose to use a supervised injection site and is calling for something to be done to ensure a safe supply of drugs.
The last nearly two years have been especially difficult on everyone, given the pandemic that has no end in sight. She knows COVID-19 has overshadowed the opioid crisis and it has taken away the attention from politicians who can do something about it.
“There are always so many other issues to distract from my chair, of course, as chief coroner — the biggest issue I see in this province, in terms of death, is drug toxicity. We know that in British Columbia now, the drug toxicity is the leading cause of death for those 19-39 years old amongst all other causes. That is a really disturbing factor. The average age of those dying is 44.”
She wants the party leaders to go to provinces, including B.C., to speak to families who’ve lost someone to a drug overdose to really get a sense of how urgent the problem is. ”
“The families that we interact with, the suffering that they experience and the grief when someone dies is enormous but they’ve also been grieving and suffering with their loved one many times for years trying to help them find the support and the resources they needed and we do not have a system of care in this country for those experiencing problematic substance use that is evidence-based and accessible. That needs to be a priority because we just don’t want this to get worse.”
Lapointe says none of the party bosses have spoken to her but suspects conversations are happening behind the scenes and possibly with other leaders in this province.
“I know people would be happy to sit down with any of them and tell them the stories. The stories of the real people because I think sometimes we see numbers and data is compelling but behind that data are real people and real faces and real stories. It really makes a difference when you understand the number of families impacted and from all walks of life.”
Lapointe recently attended an event in Victoria that showed a montage of some of the people who died from a toxic drug overdose. She recalls the experience has heartbreaking and hopes any decision-makers or stakeholders feel what these people are going through.
“When you saw those faces, the potential and the pictures where there was promise and happiness and joy and you think, ‘That’s all lost.’ If you talk to families, you really understand the depth of this crisis and how challenging it is to find help because many of those who are experiencing problematic substance use are looking for support. They don’t want to potentially be dependent for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to find support. It’s even hard to find a physician, certainly almost impossible in this province to find somebody willing to prescribe safe supply, that’s very, very limited.”
‘These are preventable deaths’
She’s hoping before the election campaign wraps up, the leaders find time to educate themselves.
“It’s easy to dismiss this as somebody else’s problem, but unless somebody is willing to step up and say, ‘No we are going to demonstrate leadership and we are going to fix this and here are the goals and steps we’re going to take,’ in a really meaningful way, we won’t see a change. It takes bold leadership and people are looking for that.”
Despite how dire the situation is, Lapointe is feeling cautiously confident looking into the future since more attention is being paid to the crisis.
“Since the public health emergency was declared in B.C. we have seen a significant shift. We have seen the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police come out and say, ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this crisis. We have seen federal crown encouraging no more prosecution of people for possession of illicit substances. [We’re hearing] conversations about decriminalization across the country where we never did before and here in BC we are certainly hearing leadership talk about safe supply.”
Being on the frontlines of the other pandemic has, however, taken a deep toll on Lapointe and those who work in her agency.
“It’s frustrating that so many people have died. These are preventable deaths. The members of my team are frustrated. We have a Drug Death Investigation Team and we assigned to that team five years ago and [they’re] now saying to us, ‘We can’t do this anymore. Nothing is changing.’ So, they’re leaving that team. They’re not leaving our agency but being re-assigned and we’re having new people on. I think we were hopeful that this would have an end, that we would see and they haven’t yet see the change that needs to happen.”
The federal NDP is promising to declared a federal public health emergency to work with multiple groups to end criminalization and the stigma linked to drug addiction.
The Conservatives promise to invest $325 million over three years, if elected, to create 1,000 resident drug treatment beds while building dozens of recovery community centres nation-wide.
The federal Liberals are promising to dedicate $25 million to public education to reduce stigma and they’ll another $500 million toward supporting provinces and territories with things like evidence-based treatment. Justin Trudeau’s party is also saying it will create standards for substance use treatment programs and claims it will back lower-risk and first-time offenders by tweaking the Criminal Code.