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Ian Mulgrew: Drug deaths, misery to continue

Three-year drug decriminalization experiment in B.C. will do nothing to stop unnecessary overdose deaths or curb illegal drug market.

B.C.'s chief health officer Bonnie Henry.
B.C.'s chief health officer Bonnie Henry. Photo by Felipe Fittipaldi/Government of /Felipe Fittipaldi/Government of

The three-year drug decriminalization experiment in B.C. is a waste of time and a halfway whistle-stop of pain on the road to regulation.

It will do nothing to stop the unnecessary, six daily overdose deaths or curb the pernicious illegal drug market.

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It’s political sleight-of-hand, even though Premier David Eby maintains it will save lives.

“Drugs have come into British Columbia that we are finding more toxic since the start of the pandemic,” Eby said recently. “Our goal is to save lives and get between predatory drug dealers and people with serious addictions. We want to get between these two groups with nurses and doctors.”

Really? How will decriminalization do that?

The ministry of mental health and addiction is still searching for a study or evidence.

It didn’t do one, and the April 2019 special report by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Stopping The Harm, that recommended decriminalization was long on rhetoric and short on evidence.

The only jurisdiction she could point to was Portugal, a small country that adopted an administrative rather than criminal law to deal with drug possession. But it also invested heavily in treatment services.

It was also the last time Henry gave much attention to the overdose emergency declared in 2016, focusing instead for the past three years on the COVID crisis.

B.C. has been a laggard in providing treatment services, and support in this province is roughly $900 a month welfare that includes a $375 shelter allowance for rent.

The government’s response: “Currently, health authorities do not report on wait times for mental health and substance use services, and the numbers would not reflect the total number of people reaching out for help, as people access support through a variety of channels, not just health authorities.”

It would be a bad joke if the death toll was not closing in on the country’s casualty count for the Second World War.

Henry’s report, in fact, is really an argument for legalization — the real destination of this bleak legislative journey.

“There is widespread global recognition that the failed ‘war on drugs’ and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms. The predominately criminal-justice-based approach that channels people who use drugs — some of whom live with a substance use disorder — into the criminal justice system (e.g., jail sentences for possession of a small amount of an illegal substance) does not address what is ultimately a health issue.”

Decriminalization will do little, certainly, or nothing to address the societal impacts: the sky-high costs of policing and expensive emergency care, the street sales by gangsters or the violence they engender, nor the risk to kids and recreational users.

Most importantly, it will do nothing to reduce the six-a-day needless deaths because it maintains the contaminated supply.

If anything, decriminalization could see the toll rise as it will likely increase the customer base by removing any remaining deterrent effect of a potential criminal charge.

As Henry put it: “Engagement with the criminal justice system exposes non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people to a great deal of harms that they would otherwise not experience. The societal stigma associated with drug use leads many to use drugs alone and hidden, increasing their risk of dying. British Columbia cannot ‘treat’ its way out of this overdose crisis, or ‘arrest’ its way out either.”

The black market has been transformed from a corner store offering illicit, unregulated substances such as heroin and cocaine, into a bazaar selling pharmaceutical products such as fentanyl and Tylenol-3, prescription painkillers, as well as benzodiazepines, prescribed for anxiety, seizures, and insomnia.

Many of those dying had prescriptions but were cut off by doctors who didn’t want to be audited and penalized by the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The college has made it clear it would rather abandon to subterranean chemists patients receiving an addictive drug even though they may have chronic pain or continuing pain.

Although it must be said, too few doctors want to deal with substance users who live in poverty, and whose appearance and lack of hygiene can unsettle others in their waiting rooms.

Decriminalization is a make-believe solution, like the non-existent “safe supply” and supposed treatment options the NDP keeps referencing.

The government doesn’t really care about the users who don’t vote and are treated like modern lepers.

Still, it’s not only the “unworthy” who are dying. It’s mostly single men between the ages of 30 and 60, and a disproportionate number of Indigenous people.

There are roughly 7,000 people in the city’s SROs, and you would think there would be more than a few vacancies with more than 2,000 a year dying — 11,000 so far across the province.

That’s because those who are dying are primarily lonely men in their own apartments. But the dead also include many kids and recreational users.

Unlike the homeless living in camps or on the street, they don’t have people around who can respond with Naloxone or summon emergency aid, which is also nearby.

The talk about “evidence-based” solutions is a mug’s game when addiction is not a disease, has no etiology, and affects individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to ameliorate the harm and salve the suffering.

We don’t stop treating patients with other ailments even though their cause and cure also elude us. Why would patients with substance abuse challenges be different?

If Premier Eby is sincere and wants a solution to the deaths, tell the doctors to begin writing prescriptions and eliminate the adulterated underground supply with safe pharmaceutical products.

Many of these drugs are already regulated, prescribed, and are no more dangerous than other powerful medications.

Legalization and regulation would allow the health of those with substance abuse to be monitored and concerns dealt with.

Users would have a doctor to impress upon them the benefits of living without a habit.

Maybe while we await that day, the government will fund robust treatment and support services instead of paying those concepts lip service.

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