The reported number of BC’s overdose deaths in 2015 was 44 per month. That number seemed appalling but now, with the death rate almost three times higher, the situation has deteriorated. Illicit drug deaths in BC are five times the number of deaths from motor vehicle incidents.
Sadly, in the last 3-month period reported, the drug tragedy has grown worse.
Deaths from drug overdoses in British Columbia are worse than in the rest of Canada.
The elevated dangers of illicit drugs in BC is sometimes explained by elevated potency because the Port of Vancouver is an importation centre for illegal substances. Yet, nearby King County has much port traffic and an illicit drug death rate less than half that of Vancouver.
The fact we have this large network of low income housing that was originally developed for seasonal workers, and over time became homes for the urban poor and the deinstitutionalized mentally ill population, it just created a bad situation.
If you take a population at risk, put them in substandard housing, criminalize them, and you throw police at them, you tend to make a drug problem worse, not better.
You can’t tell this story without acknowledging we have been totally lacking an effective system of addiction treatment, and it’s been like that for a very long time. We’ve gone from saying the system is broken to saying there is no system.
Instead of fixing a broken system, government policies degraded it. For 16 years, Liberals were more concerned about the health of corporate contributors than the health of citizens. Regrettably, they believed criminal courts provided the most appropriate responses to poverty and drug use.
This self-congratulation is from Gordon Campbell’s Liberal platform:
Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court – a first in Canada. That court will process some 1,500 offenders a year, including many who are caught in the downward spiral of alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty…
Our Platform will expand Community Courts to other communities, to expedite sentencing and support aimed at preventing crimes, appropriately punishing criminals, and reducing repeat offenders…
In 2012, the Globe and Mail published Jails don’t keep people out of jail, an article written by former heads of Correctional Service Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and the Office of the Correctional Investigator:
Our collective experience and decades of research tell us that increased rates of incarceration neither decrease crime nor act as a deterrent to it. Safer communities and effective crime prevention are achieved through the development of integrated systems with both the flexibility and resources required to respond to individuals in a timely fashion.
As a society, we must be prepared to actively support and finance early intervention strategies for youth; a judicial process with options to ensure that incarceration is a last resort; a community mental-health system that keeps the ill out of jail; a prison service that addresses individual offenders’ problems rather than acting as a human warehouse; and conditional-release programming that supports timely, safe community reintegration.
Yet, the BC government attached too little importance to early intervention strategies. Programs to improve youthful behaviour typically begin in schools but the ability to deal with troubled children has been debased by inadequate school funding.
Even under the NDP government, school boards remain under intense financial pressures. If troubled 10-year-olds are not helped, they will be troubled young adults in a decade.
But, the highest numbers of BC drug deaths are among people 30 to 60. Obviously, this is a multifactorial social disorder, but probably related partially to growing economic inequality and unstable job opportunities for individuals.
Accessibility of illicit drugs is another factor and we know that is facilitated by this province’s gang culture. Again, that’s another complex problem, but we surmise it’s been made worse by money laundering conducted too easily in this province.
Perhaps the main cause of rising death rates results from today’s street drugs being more dangerous than before. Hakique Virani, one of Canada’s most experienced opioid experts, offers an explanation:
…bootlegging fentanyl is really cheap and when you combine an opioid with a stimulant, it creates a special kind of synergistic euphoria. It’s called speed-balling. It might help return business because mixing drugs with opioids can cause stronger physical dependence and withdrawal. But it can also increase the risk of death when users misjudge the high when using an upper and downer at the same time.
Governments are trying to address the illegal drug trade but decades of failure suggest we need more radical solutions. Health problems cannot be solved in courts and prisons.
Harm reduction specialists have ideas for improvement but the experts are restrained by legalisms imposed by bureaucrats. Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the BC Centre for Disease Control suggested one key action when he told the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick:
People need access to safer drugs.
Sadly, this may be an insoluble problem that will continue to affect families from all walks of life.