There was one glimmer of hope from Ottawa the day after the release of the devastating number of drug overdose deaths in the province, which the B.C. Coroners Service made public last Wednesday.
B.C.’s Health Minister Terry Lake expressed surprised the numbers were continuing to surge when he expected them at least to level off after interventions by the province, the health authority and a number of volunteer groups working to avert overdoses caused primarily by street drugs laced with fentanyl .
But people on the front line, including those operating the supervised injection site, Insite, suspected it could have been worse than the 80 per cent increase in 2016 over the previous year, leaving 914 people dead including many, as one observer said, who were “in the prime of their lives.”
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the PHS board of directors that operates Insite in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.)
This epidemic of illicit drug-related deaths has swept over us just as we are emerging from a decade of darkness under the rule of Stephen Harper’s Tories.
For the past 20 years, Vancouver council, the provincial government and provincial health authorities have embraced the notion of harm reduction. They have encouraged supervised-injection facilities and substitution therapy.
In fact, as a result of this crisis, Vancouver will be adding more resources in the near future.
But once Harper came to power, he fought against this at every turn.
There were two notable clinical trials conducted in Vancouver: “NAOMI,” comparing heroin and methadone, and a second, “SALOME,” introducing the substitute pain killer hydromorphone and comparing it with laboratory produced heroin.
The subjects in the tests were chronically addicted folks for whom other substitutions and programs had failed.
In each case, the subjects were found to improve in health and there was a reduction in criminal activity formerly seen as a way of getting the funds needed to purchase street drugs.
As Vancouver Coastal Health’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly notes, at the end of each trial, the physicians who found clear successes asked Harper’s government to allow them to continue providing the subjects of the experiment with clinically pure drugs. They were turned down. As a result, she says, a “whole bunch of people died” when they returned to the street for their fix of adulterated drugs.
Daly says if this had been a successful trial of a cancer drug, it would be put into circulation immediately, not prohibited.
Yet one of Harper’s final shots came in 2013 when he made the prescribing of heroin illegal. That has since been overturned by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
Switzerland, among other European countries, has been administering chemically pure heroin to addicts for decades.
But in Canada the regulations around prescribing and administering the drug are cumbersome, the number of physicians trained is small and the one clinic in Vancouver where this is happening is limited in space, meaning a token 125 patients are being treated.
As a result of the epidemic of overdose death, B.C.’s medical officials, including Daly, and the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, are pushing for all users to receive clean drugs to be administered by a network of trained addiction physicians in a number of places in each region.
Key to this, aside from training up the personnel to administer the drugs, is making those drugs legal. It is essential, says Daly, to remove the stigma of criminality from drug consumption.
That is up to Ottawa. And that is where we have that glimmer of hope.
The day after those shocking statistics came out on the number of drug overdose deaths, the Globe and Mail reported that the federal health minister, Jane Philpott, is looking at B.C.’s successful drug trials. She’s considering making those treatments available across the country.
Of course legalizing those drugs is only one part of the solution to the deplorable state in which too many of our citizens find themselves.
As Portugal has proven, criminal behaviour will decline significantly and drug users can return to a more normal life if they are not only administered clean, legal drugs, but if they are also provided supportive, secure housing and enough welfare to keep them going.
And that will take all levels of government pitching in.