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People gather for the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis at centennial square in Victoria on April 16, 2019.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

While British Columbia has done an admirable job keeping COVID-19 from overwhelming the province, its struggle with another crisis continues.

More people died from opioids in just the month of May than have died from the novel coronavirus since the outbreak began. The BC Coroners Service reported last week that 170 people died from illicit drug overdoses last month. As of Wednesday, 168 people had succumbed to COVID-19.

The number of fatal overdoses in the province had been declining prior to COVID-19′s arrival. That changed everything. It disrupted the supply chain of narcotics entering B.C. Now heroin and other drugs are coming from sources that aren’t as reliable and in many cases contain highly toxic amounts of fentanyl.

How workers’ comp fanned the flames of the opioid crisis

If nothing else, the pandemic has made policy-makers rethink their approach to a range of issues. The normal way of doing things is being disrupted. The old way of doing things is being replaced with innovative approaches, ones often forged out of necessity.

This presents an opportunity to take our current approach to drug use and addiction and burn it to the ground. For the most part, it’s been a colossal failure. It’s long past time we recognized that the limitations of our patchwork approach to mental health and addiction is likely costing as many lives as it’s saving.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem. Alberta and Saskatchewan may not be as comfortable with some of the needed remedies as provinces such as B.C., which requires and likely is prepared for a much more radical approach. But tinkering around the edges of this issue will no longer suffice.

And Ottawa needs to be at the forefront of change.

It starts with the decriminalization of drug possession. There are few public-health professionals who don’t agree that to solve the drug-use plague affecting Canada, we need to end the stigma that surrounds addiction. Throwing addicts in jail contributes to this and is pointless.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, so lauded for her handling of the COVID-19 emergency, says there have to be alternatives to the criminal-justice system to get people the help they need.

Even Benjamin Perrin, a former legal adviser to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, now concedes that, as policies go, prohibition and jail time have been utter failures as deterrents. Mr. Perrin, the author of Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis, released this year, says politics – fear of a backlash from the electorate – have made our leaders afraid to do the right thing.

Consequently, this has allowed “an unregulated criminal underworld to dictate what is in the drugs that people are taking, forcing those people to play Russian roulette,” he told The Georgia Straight newspaper this year.

Bill MacEwan, a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, has worked in Vancouver’s drug-plagued Downtown Eastside for 20 years and has long complained that the addiction-therapy system in the province is run by a plethora of organizations that are not sharing information. He laments the fact that while the opioid epidemic is now in its fourth year in the province (and around the country), not a single addiction-rehabilitation program has been added to deal with the avalanche of people needing critical care.

This problem is complex. Many of those suffering from addiction, especially in the Downtown Eastside, have severe mental-health problems that defy occasional trips to a therapist. Many of these people need to be hospitalized, in some cases permanently. That’s preferable to watching them die in the streets, which is what is happening now. It’s a policy directive that will take enormous political will.

B.C. needs to take the lead in dealing with the opioid crisis. It needs to enlist Ottawa’s help. The province needs to gather together top experts in the addiction field, top public-health officials and others who have studied Canada’s drug problem and design a new system from scratch.

It needs to be a co-ordinated approach that addresses issues such as homelessness and supportive housing. It has to address the criminal-justice issue that is so critical if true reform is going to take place. We need to create a task force with a mandate to develop a new, holistic method of dealing with drug addiction, one that blasts the status quo to bits.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week: “We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect: Can we change the system to do better?”

Now is the time to do that with this country’s out-of-control drug problem.

Jac had a beautiful life, but a decade of opioid addiction destroyed it all. Her mother Donna shares Jac's story.

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