The death toll in Canada’s other epidemic – the drug overdose crisis – is higher than ever.
Last week, the BC Coroners Service reported that illicit drug toxicity killed 176 people in April – pushing the number of dead in British Columbia this year to 680. At this rate, deaths in 2021 could hit a new record of more than 2,000, eclipsing last year’s 1,726 deaths – the previous high.
The crisis is not easing. BC Emergency Health Services answered a record volume of overdose calls in May – 26 a day in Vancouver alone.
Things may be worst in B.C., but this epidemic is national. Alberta reported 123 drug deaths in March, up 50 per cent from a year ago. Ontario recorded 2,426 opioid-related deaths in 2020 – 60 per cent more than in 2019. Even Quebec, which had suffered few such deaths, counted 547 overdose fatalities in 2020, nearly triple the number of two years earlier.
Drug overdoses have killed more than 20,000 Canadians since 2016. It is a startling figure, or should be. COVID-19 has killed nearly 26,000 Canadians – a number that would have been far higher had governments of all political stripes not marshalled a massive response of public-health measures.
When it comes to overdose deaths, the political response has often been weak, with divisions along partisan lines. It’s a health crisis where ideology has been getting in the way of doing what’s needed.
In B.C., the NDP government has made a strong push on harm reduction, from bolstering services such as supervised drug-use sites to delivering a safer supply of drugs to people to reduce reliance on toxic street drugs. The province has asked Ottawa to decriminalize drugs in B.C. – removing the threat of criminal punishment for possession of small amounts – and Vancouver is in talks with Health Canada to decriminalize drugs within city boundaries.
Like everywhere, B.C. struggles with the root causes of addiction, from poverty to mental health to inadequate housing, and on the treatment front, the system is largely unregulated. Many centres, for instance, do not offer much counselling. This is despite a 2018 call from the Coroners Service to establish provincially regulated “evidence-based quality care” by 2019.
Other provinces can do more, such as Ontario, where even basics such as tracking and reporting deaths are a low priority. The latest figures on Public Health Ontario’s website are from last November. At a broader level, there appears to be little urgency: Unlike COVID-19, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives do not have a science table of experts to advise on overdoses.
Other provinces, such as Alberta, are not just stagnating, but going in reverse. Premier Jason Kenney has long been a skeptic of supervised drug-use sites. He and many voters may be uncomfortable with the idea, but supervised drug use has saved lives. Federal data show, from 2017 to 2019, sites across Canada had two million visits and handled 15,000 overdoses. Not one person died.
Yet last week, Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party introduced a long list of rules to make it much harder to operate a site in Alberta. What’s more, people who use drugs will have to show their provincial health card. Research suggests that demanding ID will discourage many drug users from going to such a service. Maybe that’s the point.
Alberta’s move is reminiscent of Stephen Harper’s 2015 Bill C-2. After losing a fight against supervised drug use at the Supreme Court, the Conservatives passed a bill stacked with rules to discourage sites from opening.
The federal Liberals reversed the law in 2017, one of a number of steps in recent years to try to grapple with the overdose crisis. That includes Health Canada loosening rules to allow for a safer supply of drugs. But as with all governments in Canada, progress has been cautious and slow.
In Alberta, Mr. Kenney says he opposes harm reduction in part because he wants to focus on treatment. But everyone agrees treatment is the ultimate goal. The brutal reality of the overdose crisis is that people are dying every day, and harm-reduction measures make it far more likely that an addicted person will stay alive. Once you’re dead, it’s too late to get treatment.
The drug epidemic has unfolded more slowly than the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening over years – half out of sight. Now, its death toll is almost as great. To turn the tide, all governments must redouble their efforts.
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