There is a very real and deadly health crisis in B.C. from which two people died yesterday and two more will likely die today, tomorrow and the days after that.
It’s not COVID-19, and no news conference was hastily called to talk about it.
Most of those dead and dying are blue-collar guys in what should be the prime of their lives.
This is the reality as B.C. lurches into the fifth year of an opioid overdose crisis. It’s a seemingly unending emergency that by the end of 2019 had already killed 5,539 people here and more than 13,900 across Canada.
Five years in, this crisis has become normalized, with the only certainty as we face another day is that first responders are now better at resuscitating victims because, year over year, the calls have only continued to increase.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his top ministers to a committee tasked with responding to the COVID-19 crisis. At that point, Canada had only 30 confirmed cases. Of the 21 B.C. cases, four of the patients have fully recovered.
Not to belittle the concerns about COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, but with nearly 14,000 dead already, no committee — high-level or otherwise — has yet been struck to devise a national addictions strategy that would deal not only with opioids, but also the biggest killer, which is alcohol. A 2019 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that 10 Canadians die every day from substance use, and three-quarters of those deaths are alcohol-related.
During the 2019 election, the issue flared briefly after Conservatives placed ads — mainly through ethnic media — claiming that Trudeau’s Liberals planned to legalize all drugs, including heroin.
Already beleaguered, Trudeau not only denied it, he quickly disavowed the resolution overwhelmingly passed at the party’s 2018 convention that called on the Canadian government to treat addiction as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services, and decriminalize personal-use possession of all drugs, with people diverted away from the criminal courts and into treatment.
Trudeau disavowed it again this week when a Liberal backbencher’s private member’s bill was put on the order paper.
Depending on how you read Bill C-236, it’s either calling for decriminalization or legalization. Regardless, the fact that Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s bill will be debated at least gets it on the political agenda because unless there are some major changes, Canadians are going to continue dying at these unacceptably high rates that have already caused the national life expectancy to drop.
Erskine-Smith, an Ontario MP from the Beaches-East York riding, favours a Portugal-style plan of which decriminalization plays only a small part.
But parliamentary rules forbid private member’s bills from committing the government to any new spending, so he said his bill could only narrowly focus on decriminalization.
The slim bill says charges could be laid “only if … the individual cannot be adequately dealt with by a warning or referral (to a program agency or service provider) … or by way of alternative measures.”
Erskine-Smith disagreed with the suggestion that it gives too much discretionary power to police — especially since in B.C., it’s prosecutors, not police, who determine whether charges are laid.
Still, what he proposes is quite different from what happens in Portugal.
There, police have no discretionary power. People found with illicit drugs are arrested and taken to the police station where the drugs are weighed, and the person is either charged with possession and sent to court or diverted to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Use to meet with social workers, therapists and addictions specialists who map out a plan.
Since private members’ bills rarely pass, Erskine-Smith doesn’t hold out much hope for his.
It created a firestorm on social media, with some recovery advocates pitted against advocates for harm reduction, including full legalization.
Federal Conservatives also repeated their trope that drug legalization is part of Trudeau’s secret agenda.
Meanwhile, Alberta’s United Conservative government inflamed some harm-reduction advocates with the release of a report on the adverse social and economic impacts of safe consumption sites, even though it didn’t recommend shutting them down.
The report acknowledged that they play an important role in a continuum of care, but it also called for beefed-up enforcement to lessen the chaos that often surrounds them.
The committee questioned some data provided to them that suggested Lethbridge — population 92,730 — may be the world’s most-used injection site.
The committee also questioned why some operators report all adverse events, including non-life-threatening ones as overdoses, leaving the impression that without the sites “thousands of people would have fatally overdosed.”
Among its recommendations are better data collection using standardized definitions as well as better tracking of users to determine whether they are being referred to other services.
More than a year ago, Canadians overwhelmingly told the Angus Reid Institute that they supported mandatory treatment for opioid addiction.
Nearly half said they were willing to consider decriminalization. Nearly half also said that neither Ottawa nor the provinces were doing enough to ease the epidemic.
It seems Canadians are eager for change even if they’re not yet certain what it should look like. The only ones who seem reluctant are the politicians.
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