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Opinion Our only way out of the opioid crisis: Systemic change

Jordan Westfall is the co-founder of the Canadian Association for Safe Supply.

How many more overdose deaths will British Columbia experience over the next decade without the government enacting sweeping systemic change? Since 2016, more than 4,000 people have died of overdoses in British Columbia. The vast majority of these deaths involved fentanyl or drugs similar in chemical structure, obtained in unregulated, illegal markets.

The BC NDP provincial government inherited a public-health emergency, but it now has the responsibility (along with federal and municipal governments) to replace the illicit drug supply with a safe supply. Recently, a report from Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has recommended “establishing a regulated supply of drugs as an alternative to the illegal drug supply.”

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Safe supply, a concept originated by people who use drugs and defined by the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs as “legal equivalents of the euphoria-producing drugs people seek in illicit (and fentanyl contaminated) markets” should be one of the foundations of British Columbia’s drug policy moving into the future.

If the significant factor in thousands of overdose deaths is a tainted drug supply, it follows that B.C.’s government should focus its efforts and resources on ensuring that people at risk of overdose have legal access to drugs of a known potency and quantity.

This is what the “safe” in safe supply refers to; it does not mean that a safe drug is overdose proof. It simply means that a person consuming it knows exactly what they are getting, both in dosage and in potency. This idea is controversial to many people, but it’s just as often taken for granted whenever someone purchases beer or liquor from one of thousands of licensed liquor establishments in British Columbia. They know they are purchasing a safe supply.

Safe supply does not refer to traditional oral treatments (OST) such as suboxone, methadone, or Kadian, as for most people these drugs do not replicate the “high” or euphoria-producing properties that lead them to buy drugs in the illicit market. B.C’s government has made tremendous progress in expanding access to OST and some 28,000 people are participating in these programs across the province.

The goal with safe supply is to make programming accessible enough so that people who use illicit drugs, opioids such as heroin or fentanyl, stimulants such as cocaine or crystal meth, or benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium can obtain these substances safely and legally – instead of on a street corner.

The BC NDP has recently released “A Pathway to Hope,” which charts a 10-year plan for the future direction of mental health and addictions care in the province. You would think that within these pages, the government would lay out its plan for replacing the illicit supply of drugs that has taken so many lives and so much human potential from us.

Unfortunately, the report contains just one vague mention of expanding "access to safe medication alternatives to the poisoned drug supply” with no elaboration or specific plans for doing so. This is a document that is expected to guide B.C. drug policy for the next decade.

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The public is being told that the recent decrease of four overdose deaths a day to three is a surefire sign that the government is on the right track, and will pave the way to a brighter future for tens of thousands of people in British Columbia. Even at a slightly reduced rate of death (still historically higher than any other time in the province’s history), three deaths a day means 10,950 overdose deaths over the next decade, equivalent to a community the size of Nelson or Dawson Creek wiped off the provincial landscape.

We cannot replace the lives that we have already lost; just ask the thousands of friends and family members who wake up every day overcome with grief. These are people who can never be replaced. That sense of injustice and emptiness, when someone you love is taken before their time, is hard to put into words.

The government can honour their lives and their deaths by making the future one in which safe supply is more than just a vague mention in a 90-page report. They need to be brave for us, because without their bravery, British Columbia could see another decade of a public-health emergency.

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