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A public health approach to the overdose crisis


Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. I attended the overdose awareness gathering hosted by the Nanaimo Community Action Team at Maffeo Sutton Park. This is an important day in our communities to fight for action to end toxic drug poisonings, reduce the stigma of addiction, and remember those who have died. One of the people I will be thinking about today is my cousin Patrick, who died from a toxic drug overdose in 2017.


The opioid crisis is a public health emergency that’s getting worse. Drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural death in BC. Last year, 1,716 people in BC died from overdose, a 74% increase compared to 2019. These were people from all walks of life and demographics. They were someone’s child, parent, partner, sibling, friend, or loved one.


There is a common misconception that the overdose crisis is a ‘street problem’. Overdose is also a very real danger for many people who are not street-involved. Opioids are used for pain relief and are often prescribed by doctors, which can lead to people with jobs and homes suffering from addictions. In the first five months of 2021, 85% of overdose deaths in BC took place indoors. The majority of these deaths were in private residences.


The ‘war on drugs’ has been an absolute failure. It has criminalized drugs to the point we are at now, with record high levels of overdoses and tainted drugs. It has also contributed to many societal problems, including disproportionate impacts on Black and Indigenous communities, homelessness, gang activity, unsafe communities, and prison overcrowding.


It’s time to end criminalization and reframe this issue using a public health approach. We need a system that both prevents addictions and connects people to help, without stigma or shame. This means decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use, and connecting people to improved health and social services. It also means guaranteeing a safe supply of opiates for individuals who use drugs. This is an evidence-based approach; according to the latest available report from the BC coroners service, not a single death has been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites so far in 2021.


The government has made some investments in emergency treatment and harm reduction, but they have so far failed to act on the growing calls for decriminalization. They have not demonstrated the political will needed to truly address the crisis. In the meantime, overdose deaths have continued to climb.


I have long been calling for the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. I have spoken in the House of Commons many times about the crisis, overdose prevention, decriminalization, and guaranteeing a safe supply. I have written to the Minister of Health, presented parliamentary petitions, and visited the overdose prevention centre on Wesley Street in Nanaimo. Me and my constituency staff are also trained in the use of naloxone, the medicine that is used to save people from overdose deaths. I invite you to look at the resources posted below this blog for more information about my work on this topic.


A public health approach to the opioid crisis will save lives. I will continue pressing the government and fighting for this approach, and I hope you will too.



Resources


Decriminalization will save lives. (Blog Post & Letter to Minister of Health)


Green Party reiterates call for decriminalization of possession of opioids. (Press conference)


Where They Stand: On the Toxic Drug Crisis. (The Tyee, article)


Police chiefs, public health authorities, NDP, Greens increasingly united around calls for drug decriminalization amid overdose uptick. (The Hill Times, article [paywalled])


Petition calling for the decriminalization of psychotropic drugs for therapeutic and traditional purposes. (Parliamentary petition)


Petition calling on the government to declare a public health emergency and reframe the overdose crisis as a health issue.