Following news this week that another 159 people in B.C. died of a drug overdose in June, Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, defended the provincial government’s handling of the toxic drug supply crisis, which is on pace to set a record number of deaths in the province.
B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa LaPointe, however, said the provincial government is not doing enough to combat the crisis, which only appears to be getting worse.
On International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, LaPointe shared the latest coroner’s report on drug overdoses in B.C.
From January to June, more than 1,000 British Columbians died as a result of the province’s illicit drug crisis, which is on pace to break a record by year’s end. This year, there have been at least 121 overdose deaths in Surrey, which is behind Vancouver’s 239.
Fentanyl and carfentanil accounted for 87 per cent of those deaths.
In an interview with Peace Arch News Tuesday, Malcolmson highlighted her government’s efforts to address the crisis, including creating an overdose emergency response centre; funding community action teams; expanding access to naloxone, expanding supervised consumption sites; working toward ending stigma; and pushing the federal government for decriminalization.
She said the provisions were making an impact in lowering the number of overdose deaths until the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the issue.
“That tells us that intervening strongly can make a difference. But COVID has been such a huge setback, the drug toxicity has increased exponentially and more people use alone because of the isolation that COVID has brought,” Malcolmson said, adding that June’s overdose deaths were “tragic.”
Malcolmson also noted the government’s recent efforts toward expanding access to a prescribed safe drug supply. As part of the program, people who use drugs and who are at high risk of dying from a toxic illicit drug supply will be able to access alternatives if prescribed by a doctor or nurse. The program does not support a recreational user who want access to safe drugs for the weekend, though Malcolmson said they’re working to expand its scope.
The program has been criticized, including by LaPointe, for its numerous barriers, reluctance from health professionals to prescribe opioids, and low usage.
“None of this is to declare victory, only to show the families and people working on the front lines that have lost loved ones, that we are trying to tackle this in new, different ways,” Malcolmson said, adding that the April budget had the “largest contribution in B.C.’s history to mental health and addictions.”
In a media conference Tuesday, which Malcolmson did not attend, LaPointe said the Ministry of Health and Addictions has made “small steps” to combat the drug overdose crisis, “and that’s not enough.”
Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, where an “all-hands-on-deck” approach involved every ministry in the province, the drug overdose toxicity crisis has been left to only one ministry, LaPointe said.
LaPointe said it’s “frustrating” and “heartbreaking” that the provincial government is not getting the message.
“I think the provincial government is hearing, I think the federal government is hearing. These are big ships that are turning around slowly and they need to turn around quickly,” LaPointe said.
“What’s happening, the programs that are in effect now are not working and what we need is to be courageous, innovative, and ramp up in a very big way.”
The handling of the overdose crisis has been so poor that LaPointe’s colleagues who investigated overdose deaths for the past five years have asked to leave.
“They cannot see change. They are disheartened. Nothing has made a difference in all of this time,” LaPointe said.
In addition to the issues LaPointe highlighted, South Surrey-White Rock MLA and addictions critic Trevor Halford took issue with the ministry for not hosting a media availability and only releasing a statement after receiving criticism from journalists and politicians on Twitter.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that we don’t have accountability on this file at the highest level of government,” Halford said.
“And I point directly to the premier, and he’s got to step up and take responsibility for this file because his minister is clearly not doing that.”
“This isn’t just the critic of the mental health and addictions ministry saying there’s a problem with how this is set up, the coroner outlined that today.”