A man injects drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Canada needs a new approach to tackle its overdose crisis, says the lead author of a new study that highlights a prevalence of overdoses involving non-prescribed fentanyl and stimulants in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

New study calls for new approach to tackling overdose crisis

There have been more than 15,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016

Canada needs a new approach to tackle its overdose crisis, says the lead author of a new study that highlights a prevalence of overdoses involving non-prescribed fentanyl and stimulants in British Columbia.

There have been more than 15,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016.

British Columbia has recorded more than 5,000 deaths from illicit drug overdoses since declaring a public health emergency in 2016.

The study, published on Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at 1,789 overdose deaths in British Columbia between 2015 and 2017 in which the coroner was able to determine the substances relevant to the deaths.

It reported that despite decreases in the prescription of opioids across the province, the death rate from illegal drug overdoses has continued to rise.

Dr. Alexis Crabtree, the study’s lead author and resident physician in public health and preventative medicine at the University of British Columbia, says it highlights what isn’t working when it comes to tackling the overdose crisis.

“What we found is that this overdose crisis is not driven by prescribed medications and de-prescribing initiatives alone won’t solve the overdose crisis,” she said in an interview.

In most cases where prescribed opioids were implicated in a death, the toxicology report also flagged the non-prescribed opioids in the person’s system, Crabtree added.

The study’s findings also highlight the declining role of prescription opioids and heroin in the overdose crisis and the rise of synthetic opioids and stimulants.

The current strategies on battling the overdose crisis “must do much more” than target de-prescribing opioids, the study concludes.

READ MORE: Talks needed on decriminalizing hard drugs to address opioid crisis, Tam says

Men continue to dominate the overdose death toll, making up more than 80 per cent of deaths, with people between the ages of 31 to 49 making up the predominant number of deaths.

One aspect that is often overlooked is the efficacy of methadone and buprenorphine, opioids used to treat opioid addiction, Crabtree said.

The study showed that few overdoses involved people with those opioids in their system, which Crabtree said she believes should make doctors feel more comfortable in prescribing them to drug users.

In B.C., the provincial government expanded the access to a safe supply of prescription drugs near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to concerns about the number of overdose deaths arising from isolated drug users.

That program, and subsequent concerns raised over the prescribing of illicit-alternative drugs, prompted the decision to publish the study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Crabtree said.

“A question or concern physicians have is ‘is the medication I’m prescribing contributing to overdoses?’” said Crabtree. ”I can understand why people have that concern. I think these results are really reassuring that prescribed medications are not a driver of overdose risks and supports physicians to prescribe under those risk mitigation guidelines.”

She said she agrees with the recommendations of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry who called for the decriminalization of people who possess small amounts of drugs in a 2019 report.

At the time, Henry wrote that the province “cannot wait for action at the federal level.”

She reiterated those recommendations in June 2020, which saw 175 suspected overdose-related deaths.

“COVID-19 has made clear the government can act in a very fast and effective way when it prioritizes a response to a public health emergency,” said Crabtree. “I would love to see that same effectiveness applied to responding to the overdose emergency and protecting the health of people who use drugs.”

More access to overdose prevention and supervised inhalation sites should be some of the next steps forward both in B.C. and across the country, she added.

The federal government launched a national consultation on supervised-consumption sites last week, seeking comments from a variety of Canadians, including those who operate the sites and those who use them.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Drugsopioid crisisopioidsoverdoseoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Construction underway for new Cloverdale elementary school

The $33 million school is to seat 655 students

George Garrett retires from Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society board

Society completes more than 58,000 trips since 2016

Two Surrey schools report COVID-19 exposures, including second contact for Panorama Ridge

Fraser Health has created a new webpage listing COVID-19 cases in schools

B.C. families financially affected by pandemic eligible for grocery gift cards

Program open to struggling families in Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley communities

B.C. or Ontario? Residential school survivors fight move of court battle

It’s now up to Ontario’s Court of Appeal to sort out the venue question

B.C. transportation minister will not seek re-election

Claire Trevena has held the position since 2017

Young B.C. cancer survivor rides 105-km with Terry Fox’s brother

Jacob Bredenhof and Darrell Fox’s cycling trek raises almost $90,000 for cancer research

VIDEO: Shots fired outside Langley gas station that was scene of 2018 homicide

No reports of injuries in Saturday evening incident

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. migrant, undocumented workers rally for permanent residency program

Rally is part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign led by the Migrant Workers Centre

Preparations underway for pandemic election in Saskatchewan and maybe B.C.

Administrators in B.C. and around the country are also looking to expand voting by mail during the pandemic

Nearly 20 per cent of COVID-19 infections among health-care workers by late July

WHO acknowledged the possibility that COVID-19 might be spread in the air under certain conditions

Ferry riders say lower fares are what’s most needed to improve service

Provincial government announces findings of public engagement process

Most Read