Written for Daily Hive by Sonia Furstenau, leader of the BC Green Party and MLA for Cowichan Valley
For the past six years, the toxic drug supply in BC has taken more lives than homicides, suicides, and car crashes combined. The latest Coroners Service report reveals that, for the fourth consecutive month, over 200 British Columbians have died from toxic drugs. It is important to note that none of these deaths were reported at supervised consumption sites, and there is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.
The toxic drug supply has killed thousands of British Columbians and is the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 19 and 39. Yet, instead of addressing the crisis at the source – an unregulated, highly dangerous, and poisoned drug supply – current policies and government strategies continue to focus on abstinence and treatment. They don’t recognize that not every drug user is addicted. What would be a life-saving protection? A supply of drugs that isn’t poisoned – in other words, a safer supply.
When I talk to the younger people around me, a common trend has emerged. They know more people, personally, who have lost their lives to the poisoned drug supply than to COVID-19. The sheer level of fatality is abhorrent. The BC NDP recognizes this crisis, and claims it is a key priority. Yet the number of deaths keeps climbing.
Street drugs have never been so toxic. Seven people are being poisoned and killed every day as a direct result of government inaction. Since the beginning of 2020, fentanyl has been detected in no less than 80% of all tested substances in our province. In February of this year, 100% of all tested street drugs contained fentanyl or fentanyl-like substances.
Just as prohibition in the 1920s led to the increased potency of alcohol, the war on drugs continues to drive up ever-increasing levels of toxicity in street substances. By cutting common street drugs like heroin with cheaper and more potent synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl), drug suppliers can dramatically increase profits while decreasing the risks associated with producing and selling illicit substances.
Fentanyl, a word that North Americans have become far too familiar with, is estimated to be 20-40 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times stronger than morphine. Those on the supply side of the illicit drug market are incentivized to cut drugs with stronger and more lethal substances.
Breaking down stigma
Like many illicit street substances, fentanyl made its debut as an analgesic drug used in medical settings and continues to be used in hospital settings to control severe pain, especially among pre- and post-surgery patients. Yet when individuals access fentanyl or heroin or oxycodone from street supplies, they are stigmatized, marginalized, and shamed for their use of drugs.
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The harsh stigma against people who use drugs permeates every level of our society. From the way we treat people accessing safe consumption services to the archaic policies at provincial and federal levels, our governance systems have made it glaringly obvious that people who use drugs don’t deserve the same dignity afforded to other citizens.
Consider Chicago in 1982. People began dying from Tylenol laced with potassium cyanide. The country didn’t make Tylenol consumption illegal, those consuming and dying weren’t shamed, they weren’t forced into a system of care to fix their addiction. The government took concrete action by addressing the problem at the source. Johnson & Johnson took significant action by introducing tamper-proof packaging for Tylenol, and the US government extended this packaging regulation to all over-the-counter medications. The government addressed the issue at the source and effectively guaranteed a safer supply of drugs. So why should we not afford the same assurance to people who use illicit substances in our province?
Safe supply isn’t a new concept. Anyone who walks into a liquor store and purchases a bottle of wine has accessed a regulated supply of alcohol. We can purchase safe cannabis at licensed businesses. And we can depend on a supply of over-the-counter medication at the nearest pharmacy.
If 1 in 10 bottles of wine killed people we wouldn’t be “building a system of care” we’d move immediately to ensure that a #safesupply existed.
— Sonia Furstenau (@SoniaFurstenau) March 3, 2022
Listening to the experts
Existing attempts to regulate the illicit drug supply aren’t working. We have been in a public health emergency for six long years, and instead of seeing real and substantive improvements, this crisis has gotten more deadly, dangerous, and unpredictable. It has become clear that this issue is not an overdose crisis. It is a policy crisis.
If we want to see an effective response to the toxic drug crisis, we need to listen to the experts. Those working on the frontlines, and those with lived and living experience, have repeated time and time again: the only way to decrease the unacceptable number of deaths is by providing a safer alternative to the illicit toxic drug market.
The shocking level of toxicity in drugs is a result of two things: the harsh criminalization of drugs and the people who use them, and the gross inaction of the government in providing a safer alternative.
Why we need a safer supply
On Wednesday, March 9, the BC Coroners Service Death Review Panel released their report on illicit drug toxicity deaths in our province. Their very first recommendation is to “ensure a safer drug supply for those at risk of dying from the toxic illicit drug supply.”
Growing concentrations of fentanyl, benzodiazepines, and fentanyl analogues in the illicit drug supply have made it clear: everyone accessing street substances is at risk of dying.
The “safer supply” model that currently exists in our province is very limited, both in who can access it and the types of supply that are available. The current “safer supply” is comprised of withdrawal medications; these drugs are minimal in terms of the euphoric and therapeutic effects that are desired and needed by many people who use drugs. And to access it, people have to be diagnosed with substance use disorder, find a doctor to prescribe it, and they can’t access any form of street drug or they risk losing it.
People who use drugs – whether occasionally or regularly – deserve access to a drug supply that they can rely on, that is regulated, and that won’t send them to the morgue.
Throughout the country, and the rest of North America, hundreds of thousands of people are dying from the poisoned drug market. Unfortunately, BC is leading the way and can claim responsibility for having the highest per capita rate of fatalities. This is a crisis that affects not only our province but the rest of the globe.
When is our BC NDP government going to stand up and take real, effective, concrete action against the toxic drug supply?