Toxic drug overdose crisis inspires all-party effort

Written By Fran Yanor

Another extraordinary day in the legislature this afternoon.

In the rarest of Question Periods, members from all sides of the chamber argued passionately and sincerely; the government side listened and answered thoughtfully; and the premier lit a promising path forward with a fiery response and a surprise commitment to bi-partisan collaboration.

“I know that no one benefits, no British Columbians benefit, from contemptuous questions and contemptuous responses,” said Premier John Horgan today. “No one wants to politicize this. I firmly believe that.”

“No one wants to politicize this. I firmly believe that.”

John Horgan

Illicit drug deaths increase

At issue were the findings of the Death Review Panel. Earlier in the day, BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe released the report of the panel – a group of mental health and addictions professionals who reviewed illicit drug toxicity deaths and public policy between August 2017 to July 2021 – making nearly two dozen recommendations for change.

During the span of the review, 6,007 British Columbians died of illicit toxic drug overdose, which is now the leading cause of unnatural death in the province. The provincial government officially declared the overdose situation a health emergency in April 2016. Since then, more than 8,700 people have died, according to the panel’s report.

“With illicit drug-related deaths continuing to increase, it has become clear that the current response to this emergency is not working,” the report stated. Despite provincial initiatives attempting to address drug toxicity, people have continued to die. “A new approach is required, one that includes a specific focus on the toxic drug supply.”

The panel released findings and recommendations geared to ensuring a safe drug supply, developing a drug toxicity action plan, and establishing evidence-based continuum of care.

Official Opposition leader Shirley Bond kicked off questions citing the panel’s findings of a lack of coordinated services, long wait times, and gaps in service delivery. “It basically said, in unequivocal terms, that the approach that’s being used is failing.”

“The approach that’s being used is failing.”

Shirley Bond

Bond then asked Horgan to commit to implementing the panel’s recommendations within the timelines indicated, which began as early as 30 to 90 days.

Horgan thanked Bond for her “passion and her commitment” to the issues but said, establishing treatment capacity and increasing health care providers in communities across the province “takes time” and would require continued application of the work already begun by government.

BC Liberal mental health and addictions critic Trevor Halford followed.

“When someone reaches out for help, they need to be able to receive that help, (and) it needs to be affordable,” said Halford, MLA for Surrey-White Rock. “This government needs to accept all 23 of the panel’s recommendations and act immediately to ensure a coherent provincewide strategy is adopted to stop the crisis.”

Minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, said the government was making positive headway on several fronts and pointed to her ministry’s program Pathway to Hope, currently three-plus years into a 10-year plan. The panel’s recommendations reinforced the work already being done, Malcolmson said. The problem was the toxic drug supply.

“The work that is underway by our government has been overcome by the increases in toxicity of drugs,” said Malcolmson.

According to the report, fentanyl and its analogues were detected in 85 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths during the dates of the review. Fentanyl is an opioid used legally as an anesthetic and illegally as an additive in the street drug supply. It is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and has contributed significantly to illicit drug toxicity overdose deaths.

“It is the poisonous drugs that are killing people… and there is a solution that has been put in front of this government over and over and over again,” said BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau.

“Will the premier commit to… create an immediate access to a safer supply of drugs?”

Sonia Furstenau

Among many other recommendations, the panel called for the development of a framework for “safer supply distribution” of medical and non-medical drugs.

“Will the premier commit to what the coroner is asking and create an immediate access to a safer supply of drugs?” asked Furstenau.

The government has scaled up overdose prevention, increased prescribed access to opioid agonist treatments including licensing nurse practitioners to prescribe safe drug alternatives, said Malcolmson. “We do not lack the political will” to allow non-medicalized drugs, she said. “We lack the jurisdiction. That is a federal matter, and we are doing everything we can with urgency within our provincial authority.”

The panel findings were “a damning indictment of failure,” said Abbotsford West MLA Mike deJong, calling again for Horgan to reconvene the select standing legislative committee on health “to marshal the collective energy and talents of this place, to work collaboratively, and to find a solution that will reverse the trend that we are seeing in this report.”

Over the past 15 months, the BC Liberals and BC Greens have asked the government to pull together an all-party effort, either with a working group or by reactivating the Select Standing Committee on Health, to deal variously with the pandemic and the opioid overdose crisis.

Every time, their requests hit a wall with the premier and his ministers. Until today.

“I know that every single member feels exactly the same way I do… all of us are shaken. All of us are rattled when we see 6,000 lives extinguished because of a toxic drug supply,” Horgan said, announcing the government’s commitment to reactivate the health committee to “see if the collaboration that is called for here actually materializes.”

“I’m hopeful that it will,” said Horgan.