Ian Mulgrew: Decades of politicians ignoring the evidence led to today’s opioid crisis

Opinion: With five people a day dying of overdoses in B.C., government efforts have amounted to little more than a Band-Aid

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A generation after Vancouver embraced “harm reduction” to combat the 1990s pandemic of AIDS/HIV and needle use, the plague has metastasized and five people a day are dying.

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After a quarter-century, deaths from drug overdoses in B.C. rival a war zone, the affected families have multiplied to beggar belief and the concomitant human misery is staring us in the face.

The gospel of reform maintained the social decay, disease and rampant crime would force politicians, police and health officials to collaborate — the tragedy motivate them to abandon criminal prohibitions in favour of common sense.

What went wrong?

In the early 1990s, Switzerland’s success with heroin maintenance spurred Vancouver advocates to begin pushing for needle exchanges, rooms for addicts to fix in, and free or nominally priced heroin.

In 1997, the national task force on HIV/AIDS and injection-drug use (which included the chiefs of police and the bar association) urged prescription morphine, heroin and cocaine trials.

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Protests became routine. A typical one in 1999 drew about three dozen to Victory Square sporting the usual makeshift signs: ”Harm reduction yes, war on drugs no.”

Bud Osborn — a poet, a founder of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and member of the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board — flayed the three levels of government: ”We’d rather you die than live with hope for a change in your life.”

A man injects street drugs in an alley in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in April 2020.
A man injects street drugs in an alley in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in April 2020. Photo by JESSE WINTER /REUTERS

The demonstrators planted scores of tiny white crosses below the grey granite Cenotaph: memorials for those in B.C. who died in 1998 from fatal overdoses in the War on Drugs — 370.

Today, with addiction endemic and fentanyl ubiquitous, that’s less than a three-month casualty count.

Insite, the first supervised injection site on the continent, opened on East Hastings Street in 2000.

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There was little appetite, however, for such ideas among mainstream voters who feared for their kids and believed drug addiction was “a lifestyle choice.”

Instead of backing the health and social initiatives, the VPD emphasized enforcement.

Police agencies across the country pushed scare-’em-straight programs epitomized by D.A.R.E. — a 1983 product based on the LAPD’s experiences.

It didn’t work.

Worse, after several worrying studies, specialists in 2007 decided it was potentially harmful and could encourage drug experimentation among some children.

In 2008, the VPD reported that between a third and a half of all service calls were from the mentally ill.

That realization triggered the beginning of change.

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The force finally seemed to get it: closing institutions, social-housing cuts, inadequate welfare rates and easy access to adulterated illegal substances fuelled the raging drug pandemic. Enforcement was not an answer.

The B.C. Health Officers’ Council reiterated a health-based approach was required — mandatory minimum sentences and coercive treatment had failed miserably.

Few mainstream politicians, however, found common cause with the addicted, those selling narcotics to survive, those who didn’t want an opiate substitute or those who wouldn’t embrace Jesus and forever abjure intoxicants.

The late Mayor Philip Owen championed the Four Pillars harm-reduction strategy and his successors, mayors Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan, did as well, to their credit.

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Funding was always an issue or the initiatives would be watered down and become anemic.

Paramedics respond to an emergency medical call in the 100-block E. Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC Thursday, April 22, 2021.
Paramedics respond to an emergency medical call in the 100-block E. Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC Thursday, April 22, 2021. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

A community court was opened but was a pale shadow of what was wanted — millions being squandered on a new courtroom instead of using the basement of a church.

There was no broad support for compassion.

Drug-war proponents continued advocating prison time and coercion: “Get a job — no one buys me a rye and coke.”

Prime minister Stephen Harper hated Vancouver’s supervised injection site.

He swept aside a growing mountain of evidence supporting harm reduction and scoffed at criticism of his hoary and failed, tough-on-crime approach. Federal money went mostly to enforcement and spin rather than treatment.

The game-changer was supposed to be the 2011 landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision rebuking the Conservatives.

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Citizens’ health matters more than anti-drug laws, the nine justices ruled unanimously, ordering an immediate exemption to allow Insite to remain open.

“Morality” is irrelevant when it comes to Charter rights, they said. The court, though, confirmed Ottawa’s jurisdiction and the constitutional division still is cited by as an impediment to dealing with the opioid crisis.

And the Tory administration defiantly insisted “harm-reduction” programs diverted money from proper addiction-treatment programs.

There always has been a Skid Road in Vancouver, but the current tragic disorder can be traced directly to successive governments and their failure  to care for the mentally ill.

The mental health system is a shambles and politicians of every stripe and all levels of government abandoned the most vulnerable.

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This province emptied Riverview Hospital, moved to an  underfunded community-based model and refused to deal with the fallout of misery . It aggravated rather than alleviated suffering.

Many of those with mental illness now also are beset by drug-and-alcohol dependencies — dual-diagnosed as they say and near impossible to treat.

In spite of a half-century of contrary evidence, politicians and law enforcement maintain a regime of criminal sanctions that enriches gangsters, exposes users to adulterated drugs and threatens with prosecution individuals with a health disability.

September was the 12th consecutive month in B.C. of at least 150 overdose deaths.

There were 1,534 suspected fatal ODs between January and September — the highest total ever in the first nine months of a year, a 24 per cent jump over the 1,240 recorded last year.

It dwarfs COVID-19’s death toll.

The NDP promise the coming budget will include $500-million for addiction and mental health services — with 10 new beds immediately in Surrey!

It’s a Band-Aid.

Imagine if 20 years ago, institutions and authorities had followed the science and responded as they did to COVID-19: How many of our family, our loved ones and neighbours might be alive?

Is it not time?

imulgrew@postmedia.com

twitter.com/ianmulgrew

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