A report into an investigation of 6,007 overdose deaths in British Columbia calls on the province to urgently develop a policy to distribute a safer supply of drugs and offer better health supports with a plan that would see action taken over 30, 60 and 90 days.
The death review panel report released Wednesday by chief coroner Lisa Lapointe's office sets a deadline of May 9 for the government to create a safer supply policy in collaboration with the BC Centre for Disease Control and the BC Centre on Substance Use.
Michael Eglison, chair of the panel, said the average age of those who died between August 2017 and July 2021 was 42, and Indigenous people and those with mental health disorders were disproportionately represented.
"Although a number of provincial initiatives have been undertaken in an attempt to address the drug toxicity crisis, these initiatives have not been sufficient to stop the rising death toll," he told a news conference. "A new approach is required, one that includes a specific focus on the toxic drug supply."
An increasingly toxic drug supply and a policy of prohibition forces people to use street drugs, the panel's report says.
It calls for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, the Health Ministry and all health authorities to join forces in rapidly expanding access to a safer supply of drugs.
Poverty and unstable housing are top factors among those dealing with drug addiction.
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The review panel of 23 experts, including those in public health, First Nations health, law enforcement and drug users, recommended the government have until April 11 to review a 2017 death panel report that outlines a system of care for substance users.
The experts heard health-care practitioners do not feel supported in providing services to those who use illicit drugs, Eglison said, adding investments are needed in training to assess, screen and diagnose substance use disorder as well as to establish standards and deliver care.
A policy to create that care should be established by June 9, the report recommends.
Lapointe said more than 9,000 people have died of an overdose since the province declared a public health emergency in April 2016.
Despite the "aggressive timelines" set out in the report, Lapointe said she doesn't expect a full plan to be in place within 30 days though a framework should start to be developed by then as part of the "very courageous" policy changes that are needed to save lives.
"We really do want to ensure that we don't lose another 2,200 members of our community in 2022," she said, referencing last year's record of 2,224 fatalities from overdose.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said the report confirms the urgency of the government's work.
"We agree that one of the most important actions we can take to save lives is to separate people from the toxic drug supply. That's why B.C. implemented in 2020, and expanded in 2021, a safer supply program, the first and only province in Canada to do this," Malcolmson said in a written statement.
Premier John Horgan said his government has been doing its best to tackle the overdose crisis, but it's too early to commit to the recommendations in the report, which he had not yet read.
"We need assistance from the federal government, we need assistance from health-care workers, we need assistance from communities, all of us working together will get to where we need to be," he said in the legislature.
Last fall, the B.C. government asked the federal government for an exemption to decriminalizing small amounts of drugs for personal use. The report calls on Ottawa to approve that request by April 11.
Health Canada said it would not comment on any exemption requests under review.
"We are working to expand access to safer supply programs across the country and have taken action to reduce barriers to provide people who use drugs with safer, prescribed alternatives to the toxic illegal drug supply," it said in a written statement.
Some federally funded safer supply pilot programs, rolled out in March 2020, require doctors or nurse practitioners to provide prescriptions in a clinical setting.
Dean Wilson, who leads a peer facilitator program for the BC Centre on Substance Use and is a longtime activist for drug users in Vancouver, said the Mental Health and Addictions Ministry has lacked funding and clout and should have been working with the Health Ministry all along.
"I'm really angry, and I'm incredibly frustrated," he said, adding the distribution of a safer supply of drugs should have been prioritized long ago as overdose deaths jumped by 26 per cent last year from the previous year.
Wilson said there's been a lack of recognition that drug users will seek out substances wherever they can due to the nature of addiction and that deaths from fentanyl and other opioids will continue if safer alternatives are not provided.
Not all drug users want treatment, and those who have sought it have been disappointed because of the long wait for a bed following detox, he said.
"In that time, you're usually back to where you were if you have to wait 20 days. They should go right from a detox immediately into treatment, if that's what they want. We've been telling them that's been a gap forever."
— By Camille Bains in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.