With the rise of COVID-19, British Columbia has been fighting two public health emergencies. This has left the province trying to protect the public against the deadly virus and the growing overdose crisis.
BC declared a public health emergency in response to the overdose crisis in 2016. Since then, more than 6,000 people have died as a result of the overdose crisis making it the leading cause of unnatural death since 2015.
According to the BC Coroners Service, August once again trumped previous monthly records with 147 — 4.7 a day — suspected drug overdoses. August saw a 71 per cent increase in overdose-related deaths in comparison to the year prior.
UBC is not immune from the reality of the overdose crisis. There is little data on drug usage in the UBC community but advocate Sara Fudjack said the problem persists.
“There’s a huge gap in services for students in recovery at UBC,” Fudjack told The Ubyssey.
UBC’s recovery community, the first of its kind at any Canadian university, started in 2019 after Fudjack was looking for support and discovered a similar model in the States. There are 138 student-led recovery communities across the United States.
“I broadened the scope to what’s going on in the province and then what’s going on across Canada and really discovered that there are no student recovery communities in all of Canada,” said Fudjack.
It is not just UBC that is struggling. The provincial plan is not working.
“People don’t want people to die, but at the same time, people are still dying,” Sarah Blyth, founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, told The Tyee. “We just need to make sure it’s a priority in the election.”
The BC NDP hopes to “scale up” its overdose crisis efforts with increased prevention, harm reduction efforts and a push for decriminalization.
Its platform promises to “crack down on the toxic drug supply.” It claims it is looking to “free up” police to focus on serious crimes like those who sell drugs.
In terms of medical options, the BC NDP hopes to create more safe prescription alternatives. In March, the party greenlit a safe supply program for those at risk of experiencing COVID-19 and an overdose.
The program has since expanded, allowing any registered nurses to prescribe non-tainted drugs.
Advocates say a safe supply should be a priority but have not been happy with the implementation, which has had delays, thus far.
The NDP is also in favour of decriminalization of simple possession of personal use amounts of illicit drugs. It claims it will work with local police to put pressure on the federal government or create a BC-specific plan.
A 2019 report from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged the province to create its own regulations that stop the police from upholding jailable offences for personal amounts of drugs. The provincial government rejected Henry’s push by putting the responsibility on the federal government.
As a part of a proposed 10-year Pathway to Hope mental health plan, the NDP promises to create more beds for treatment. Dr. Perry Kendall, BC’s former provincial health officer who declared the overdose public health emergency in April 2016, said that more beds is not enough.
He told The Tyee that the current approach to handling the crisis is fragmented — it’s either harm reduction or abstinence instead of a holistic, middle-ground approach.
The NDP is also calling on WorkSafeBC to provide better and more timely care to those with chronic pain as a result of workplace injuries.
BC Liberal Party
If it is elected, the BC Liberal Party promises to address the cause of addiction and prevent harm by increasing the number of treatment and recovery programs. The BC Liberals platform claims this is in opposition to the NDP who is “warehousing people with addictions.” According to the NDP platform, this is an inaccurate reflection of its promises.
The BC Liberals support a safe supply but are also pushing to help get people off drugs altogether. In 2016 it was BC Liberal Health Minister Terry Lake who implemented overdose prevention sites. This time around, they are pushing for greater mental health services in public schools, specifically noting psychiatric nurses and support for abstinence-based programs.
They also target young people through the creation of a Safe Care Act which would “safely and ethically” help them access treatment.
The BC Liberals hope that they can level the treatment playing field by ending the funding “discrimination that continues to disqualify abstinence-based treatment programs.”
Advocates warn against this approach. Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, told CBC that while abstinence-based treatment programs may help some, it is not the vast majority.
“Every single person who is addicted to a substance and wants to have treatment, wants to recover; their path is as individual as they are,” she said.
When people use while at an abstinence-based treatment program, they risk being kicked out.
“That’s what’s happening at virtually all facilities in BC. That’s not helping people and it’s setting them up for a fatal overdose,” former addictions treatment nurse Byron Wood told CBC.
They are also looking to create a prescription monitoring system to aid in early intervention. In 2016, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC implemented a similar program. According to Pain BC, this sparked outrage from chronic pain patients who claimed their ability to obtain their medication was hindered. The program also did little to combat the crisis as overdose related deaths continued to climb.
BC Green Party
In its 2020 platform the Green Party has committed to support harm reduction efforts, increasing a safe supply and decriminalizing drug possession.
The Green Party’s platform is the only one to specifically mention community consultation, which it addresses in regards to safe supply and accessibility such as dispensing machines. Its platform also promises to encourage participation in existing programs within the colleges of physicians and pharmacists to increase a safe supply.
The Greens are the only party to specifically mention the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the overdose crisis, which has caused an uptick in overdoses in part due to isolation forcing people to use alone.
Sonia Furstenau, leader of the party, told The Tyee that the overdose crisis needs the same urgency that the coronavirus disease has been met with. She said that all parties need to work together to reach this common goal as they are with COVID-19.
The party aims for decriminalization on a provincial level and the deprioritization of policing in accordance with Dr. Henry’s proposed amendments to the Police Act.
Advocates say the bottom line is that decriminalization and greater harm reduction efforts are what will save lives.
The BC Centre for Substance Use’s Dr. Carson McPherson told The Ubyssey that “the reality is for someone who is no longer alive because we don’t have harm reduction approaches available to them, we can never find that person recovering.”