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People hold banners during a march to remember those who died during the overdose crisis and to call for a safe supply of illicit drugs on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Aug. 31.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia declared a health emergency in April, 2016, over the alarming number of people dying of drug overdoses. Since then, 8,564 people have died from illicit-drug toxicity – a provincial death rate that is now far, far greater than the one associated with COVID-19.

Just this past October, 201 people died of drug overdoses in B.C. – a new one-month record. That is the same number that died in all of 2009. Ten months into 2021, the province had already seen a record 1,782 deaths – more than in all of 2020.

The BC Centre for Disease Control released data this week that showed drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people aged 19 to 39 – people in their prime. It is the second-leading cause of death among 40-to-59-year-olds.

It’s past time to deem the government’s response to this crisis a dismal failure.

As someone who has written about this issue many times, I know that if you have read this far you are unusual. The fact is, the public doesn’t really care too much about people dying from drug overdoses. Or if they do care, it’s of the isn’t-that-awful-what’s-for-dinner? variety of concern.

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For years now, health professionals, addiction specialists, mental-health experts and social workers, among others, have all been saying the same thing: People with addictions to dangerous drugs need access to a safe supply of whatever they’re using. Because the stuff they are buying on the street is carrying deadly doses of fentanyl and methamphetamines and benzodiazepines. Stuff that is killing them.

We have tried shaming drug addicts into stopping. We have tried throwing them in jail. We have tried getting them into rehabilitation programs. Governments and public-health bodies have tried all that. And it’s not working. The problem is worse than ever because the stuff people are buying on the street is more dangerous than ever.

Both the B.C. government and the city of Vancouver have asked Ottawa to allow for the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use so users aren’t stigmatized and discouraged from getting help. When this goes through it will help – a little. But the truth is, we have de facto decriminalization already and it really hasn’t made a difference.

The difference maker is safe supply.

Proponents of safe supply say it’s a way to curb the growing number of Canadians dying each year to a street drug supply saturated with dangerous substances such as fentanyl. Safe supply programs offer pharmaceutical alternatives and studies show they can prevent overdoses and other crime, while critics worry that recipients may sell their prescribed drugs to buy other substances.

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Granted, this is not a simple issue. Doctors are reluctant to prescribe pharmaceutical opioids to replace illicit ones because of liability concerns. They are worried about increased scrutiny from the College of Physicians and Surgeons around the prescribing of opioids and other narcotics. Consequently, most doctors want no part of the safe-supply solution, even if they accept it’s the only choice we have in reducing the number of overdose deaths we are seeing in the province.

So what then? We need a new model of safe supply that doesn’t involve physicians. Compassion clubs have been mentioned as one alternative. These are places where people could go to access prescription-grade drugs such as heroin with few questions asked. It’s one possibility.

But there needs to be a discussion among regulators and the medical community about other potential models. And this has to be addressed with some urgency.

But even as I type those words I feel a sense of hopelessness. Giving out free drugs such as heroin to “addicts” just seems to be too big a leap for governments and society generally. Allowing people to die from their addictions is easier to accept. Which is just crazy when you think about it. Imagine seeing more than 8,500 people die from a drug overdose in just over five years as easier to ac

cept than making a courageous effort to do something that could really make a difference.

At this point, what is there to lose?

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I guess the answer is votes. The reason governments are so hesitant to advocate for a safe-supply solution is because they don’t believe you, the public, are ready for it. They don’t believe the public – their voters in many cases – would accept it.

So they’re not doing it.

If the public was agitating for governments to do something – anything – to address this shameful situation, it would have happened by now. So we watch the steady drip, drip, drip of overdose deaths every day instead.

As Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner, said the other day: “Six more people will die from drug overdoses today, and six more tomorrow and six more the day after that. … It is a stain on our province for decades to come.”

And we all must bear some responsibility for it.

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