A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Decriminalizing drugs the next steps in fighting B.C.’s opioid crisis, doctor says

Patricia Daly is calling for a regulated drug supply, streamlined services as next steps in ongoing crisis

As B.C. continues to grapple with the ongoing opioid crisis, Vancouver’s chief health officer says a legal supply of drugs is needed in order to reduce the death toll of those suffering from addiction.

In her annual health report, released Friday, Dr. Patricia Daly of Vancouver Coastal Health laid out 21 recommendations in what she called the next phase of the overdose response in B.C., adding to a growing number of health officials and advocates calling for the decriminalization of hard drugs.

READ MORE: ‘Benzos’ and fentanyl a deadly cocktail causing a growing concern on B.C. streets

“Decriminalizing substance use would help reduce stigma and social isolation for people who use drugs, leading to better access to health care and social support,” Daly said in a written statement.

“Moving beyond decriminalization, legalization and regulation of all psychoactive substances would reduce people’s dependence on the toxic illegal supply, criminal drug trafficking and illegal activities that people with addictions must engage in to finance their drug use.”

Roughly 1,500 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2018. Officials have recorded a 30 per cent drop in the number of deaths between January and May of this year, compared to the same time period last year, but are remaining only cautiously optimistic in the reprieve.

READ MORE: Overdose deaths down 30% so far in 2019, B.C. officials ‘cautiously optimistic’

Although the number of deaths has somewhat stabilized, fentanyl continues to be detected in more than 80 per cent of all drug fatalities, and illicit versions of carfentanil – an opioid used to tranquilize elephants – is on the rise.

The Vancouver region has seen most of the 4,000 overdose deaths recorded in B.C. since 2016. But the problem has also touched all corners of the province, showing no discrimination towards one demographic.

Daly said that while the highest rate of overdoses have happened in the Downtown Eastside, smaller rural communities such as Powell River and the Sunshine Coast are also disproportionately affected by the epidemic.

One of her recommendations includes making a regulated drug supply available at supervised consumption sites first, to transition drug users away from the deadly street supply.

READ MORE: ‘Zero-tolerance’ approach to drug use not working with B.C. teens: study

Report highlights how drug users interact with doctors, hospital

Daly’s latest report looks at the medical records of 424 people who fatally overdosed in Greater Vancouver in 2017, offering further insight into the complex circumstances that leads to someones untimely death due to drug use.

According to those records, 39 per cent of those who died used illicit opioids on a daily basis, while 44 per cent used other drugs, like crystal meth or cocaine. Forty-five per cent had sought medical care, at some point, for acute or chronic pain.

Through their lives, 87 per cent admitted to using substances and 84 per cent had problematic substance use, their records showed, which means that they had discussed their substance use with a doctor or nurse.

READ MORE: B.C. opioid overdoses still killing four people a day, health officials say

The medical records also showed that more than half, or 59 per cent, of these 424 drug users had tried some kind of treatment for their addiction, including through using suboxone or methadone to act as a substitute to illicit drugs.

Still, a majority of those who died had ended in an emergency room within a year before their death. Seventy-seven per cent of people who died used health services in the year before they died, the report said. Forty per cent had contact with a doctor or hospital within one month and 21 per cent within one week of their death. Seven-in-10 of those visits were to emergency rooms.

Daly called the efforts made by front line workers and emergency responders “heroic” in mitigating the number of opioid deaths.

READ MORE: ‘B.C. cannot wait for action’: Top doctor urges province to decriminalize illicit drugs

“Innovative and tireless work by our front line staff, leaders and partners have led to significant progress in immediate response measures such as improving access to life-saving naloxone; reducing harms of using illegal substances with supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites; and expanding first-line treatment services.

“However, more work remains.”

In addition to decriminalizing hard drugs, the report also recommends expanding access to opioid substitution therapy treatment programs to include prescription fentanyl, as well as streamline preventative programs directed at youth and expand programs that already exist in schools.

In April, B.C.’s top health officer Bonnie Henry urged the province to urgently decriminalize possession of illicit drugs. Similar calls have been made by researchers with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

According to the province, legalization is a decision that can only be made by the federal government. Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has indicated several times in the past there is no legislation being considered.

Black Press Media has reached out to Addictions and Mental Health Minister Judy Darcy for comment.

Overdose deaths by city
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