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Has Canada’s opioid crisis finally started to level off? We should all hope so, because it is hard to imagine it getting any worse.

The numbers are brutal. According to Statistics Canada, 3,017 people died of opioid-related overdoses in this country in 2016. That jumped to 4,100 in 2017, and in 2018 it reached 4,460 – the equivalent of one life lost every two hours.

The number of deaths from accidental overdoses has become so significant that StatsCan reported in May that the country’s life expectancy did not increase from 2016 to 2017 – the first time that has happened in 40 years. In British Columbia, where the crisis has hit the hardest, life expectancy has fallen two years in a row.

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This is madness. More people than ever are surviving cancer and heart disease, but those gains are being lost to the misuse of prescription opioids or counterfeit versions of them, and to the obscene evil of drug dealers lacing heroin and cocaine with powerful opioids such as fentanyl and selling them to unwitting customers.

There have recently been small signs that the crisis might be abating. The BC Coroners Service says 84 people died in May, down significantly from 116 the year before. Over all, recorded overdose deaths in B.C. are down 30 per cent from the same period in 2018.

In the United States, the number of drug-overdose deaths dropped slightly in 2018 – the first time the numbers haven’t risen since 1990.

But there are also signs that this is just a blip. Statistics Canada reports that the number of suspected overdoses treated by emergency medical services in B.C. in the first two months of this year is significantly higher than the same months a year ago: 1,707 then, 2,432 now.

In Ontario, the first three months of this year saw a similar spike. And the province’s chief medical officer of health earlier this month reported a sharp rise in the number of overdose deaths involving carfentanil, an opioid-based elephant tranquilizer that can kill a human with just a tiny amount.

There is a good chance that, if deaths in B.C. are falling while suspected overdoses are rising, the difference is that first responders have gotten better at saving people. That in turn would be thanks to the increasing availability of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose, and which is standard equipment for first responders in Vancouver and other B.C. municipalities.

Experts in the United States attribute the marginal decrease in deaths last year to the availability of naloxone, and also to better awareness of the dangers of opioids.

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But any momentary optimism must be tempered by the undeniable truth that Canadian cities and towns are awash in illegal opioids and tainted street drugs that are killing people at a rate that ought to qualify as a national emergency.

These drugs last year killed almost 4,500 people in Canada, and nearly 50,000 in the United States, and there is no convincing sign that the tide has turned.

Which raises the question of why this crisis is not on the radar of federal politicians during an election year. Is it because it tends to mostly affect poorer and less well-connected segments of the population, as is the case in the United States, where working-class men in Rust Belt states have been among the hardest hit?

Are politicians at all levels of government allowing the stigma associated with the use of illicit drugs to compromise their sense of compassion for the victims, and their sense of urgency about stopping so many preventable deaths?

Is that why in Ontario the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford has made it more difficult to open supervised consumption sites? Is it why first responders in Montreal only started to be equipped with naloxone this summer, the third year of the crisis?

Is it why Canadian voters haven’t pressed their elected representatives about it?

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In an era where politicians are so eager to please their voting base, a terrible tragedy is being underplayed by federal party leaders. It is not that Ottawa has done nothing about it – Health Canada has been making home naloxone kits more easily available, for instance – but the scale of crisis has failed to make a dent in the national conscience.

How many of our fellow citizens have to die before Canadians see what is going on out there, and demand that politicians put it at the top of the agenda?

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