Turning the tide on the drug toxicity and overdose crisis

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The toxic drug crisis is an unprecedented public health emergency that has touched the lives of people around the world and right here in British Columbia. People are passing away every day, even as countless lives are saved by the heroic interventions of first responders, front-line workers, peers, friends and family.

In B.C., the illicit drug supply is more toxic and unpredictable than ever before, causing an urgent health emergency. For too long, people have struggled to get the mental health supports they need before small challenges become big ones. We also know that for too long, substance use was treated as a criminal justice issue instead of a public health matter, making this crisis even more destructive.

This fall, the all-party Select Standing Committee on Health released our report on the drug toxicity and overdose crisis with 37 recommendations aimed at saving lives and moving British Columbia out of the current public health emergency.

Putting aside political differences, members of all elected parties in B.C. agreed on recommendations to expand access to a safer supply, implement decriminalization, and increase enforcement of organized crime that preys upon vulnerable people with an increasingly toxic supply.  

It is our belief that moving out of this public health emergency will require not just policy-makers and key investments but all British Columbians to put aside any preconceived notions about this crisis and, fundamentally, to address our society’s deeply held stigma towards people who use drugs.

It is important to understand who is most often impacted by toxic drugs. We heard that the populations that are most affected include men aged 19-39 (77% of deaths), and people working in trades, transportation, or as equipment operators. Most deaths are also occurring when people are alone and in private residences. While the drug toxicity crisis can affect anyone, understanding these factors helps us to target solutions.   

It was clear to all members that the toxic drug crisis is not – and should not – be a partisan issue and we need to work collectively to find and focus on solutions that will save lives and help people achieve wellness.

Over the course of its work, the committee received briefings from federal and provincial government ministries and agencies, health authorities and other experts. The committee also held public hearings and invited written input to ensure all British Columbians had the opportunity to participate. The committee heard from 118 presenters and received 881 written submissions.

It was a big step forward to see all-party support for 37 recommendations to fight the overdose crisis, including evidence-based policies like safer supply and decriminalization. Each committee member comes from different parts of B.C., has different political affiliations and lived experience. Yet we all came together to build consensus and meet at our places of agreement. Ultimately, the work of this committee was an act of solidarity with all British Columbians impacted by this crisis.

B.C. is taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the ongoing public health emergency, including acting on decriminalization, adding new treatment and recovery services, and investing in new harm reduction supports, like prescribed safe supply. After decades of neglect, we are building up treatment and recovery services in B.C. to make sure help is available when someone is ready to take that step toward wellness.

We know there is more to do, and we won’t stop working until we turn the tide on this crisis. It’s our hope to build upon the work the province has done already and fill the remaining gaps.

Niki Sharma is Chair of the Select Standing Committee on Health and MLA for Vancouver-Hastings