The scourge of opioids seemed to finally ease last year in the two provinces where it has hit hardest. After taking a terrible toll in 2017 and 2018, the number of deaths in British Columbia fell by more than a third in 2019. In Alberta, deaths were down by almost one-quarter.
Like so much of the prepandemic world, those positive trends are long gone.
In B.C., the opioid crisis is worse than ever. In May, 171 people died of drug overdoses from all illicit drugs – a new record that stood for one month. In June, 175 people died of illicit drug toxicity, most cases linked to opioids. In the first six months of the year, 728 British Columbians died from drug overdoses. COVID-19 had, as of last Friday, killed 190.
The situation in Alberta is also worsening, though unlike B.C., the province has been slow to release information. March – the most recent month for which Alberta has published data – saw 60 opioid-related deaths. That was up sharply from 39 in February and 43 in January.
Recent emergency medical calls data suggests that, as in B.C., the death toll is climbing in Alberta. The province recorded 550 opioid-related calls in May, triple that of both January and February.
In the United States, the opioid epidemic is so bad that in recent years national average life expectancy has fallen. For a baby born in Canada, average life expectancy increased by 2.99 years between 2000 and 2016. According to Statistics Canada, expected life would have risen by an extra eight weeks but for the loss of life due to opioids. In B.C., life expectancy has actually dropped.
B.C. has tried to respond. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has long called for decriminalization of drugs. Premier John Horgan recently called for the same; the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is also in support.
B.C. is working to get a clean supply of drugs to people in the grips of substance misuse disorders, a measure to address street drugs poisoned with fentanyl. B.C. is also the pioneer in safe drug consumption sites, a health care service that has been proven to save lives.
Alberta’s opioid crisis is, so far, less severe than B.C.‘s – but it’s not far behind, and the government has shown less urgency. As of last Friday, COVID-19 had killed 178 Albertans. In just the first three months of the year, opioids killed 142.
Premier Jason Kenney has long been skeptical of supervised consumption sites. Before he became premier, Mr. Kenney said the sites are not a long-term solution because they help “addicts inject poison into their bodies.” Last summer he struck a review panel, led by a former police chief; the group’s mandate was to investigate the negatives and ignore the benefits.
The report landed in March and, no surprise, it was a jeremiad against supervised consumption sites.
Some points were reasonable – needle debris around the sites is a problem that should and can be addressed – but the overall approach was biased and unscientific. A group of 42 experts issued an open letter that said the report “does not satisfy the minimal standards for a credible evaluation or a quality study. The report lacks validity and reliability and, therefore, should not be used to inform public policy.”
In mid-July, Alberta cut off funding for the heavily used consumption site in Lethbridge, citing fiscal mismanagement. Alberta Health Services is setting up a temporary mobile overdose prevention site, but that reduced service is unlikely to be able to handle the previous clinic’s traffic.
Rehabilitation is everyone’s goal, but Mr. Kenney’s government underestimates the intractability of addiction. Treatment can’t happen if a person overdoses and dies because important health care such as supervised consumption is not available.
Alberta has not officially acted on its March report, so it can still reconsider its approach. This flawed report cannot be used to pull back on an essential service. This page has made the case in favour of supervised consumption before, and the need for bolder measures. Alberta’s goal of treatment and rehab is the right one, but without the right tools, that won’t happen – and a bad public health crisis in Alberta is likely to get worse.
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