VICTORIA — British Columbia's mental health and addictions minister has joined health officials to call for a safer drug supply to fight the rising overdose death toll while urging the federal government to open a "courageous conversation" on decriminalization.
"They are not prepared to do that at this time but we're pushing the limits within British Columbia," Judy Darcy said Thursday after the BC Coroners Service reported 1,489 people overdosed last year.
The province is using "every available tool" to address the crisis but criminalizing people living with addiction has not worked, she said, adding some police forces are co-operating on projects that connect drug users to outreach teams to begin treatment instead of arresting them.
"We have some pilot projects that are happening in downtown Vancouver, where we are working to increase people's access to safe prescription alternatives to a poisoned street supply," she said.
"This is a poisoned drug supply that is killing people," she said during a news conference in Surrey, B.C.
The coroners service said 1,486 people died in 2017 despite efforts to combat the province's public health emergency.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Evan Wood, of the BC Centre of Substance Use and Leslie McBain, who co-founded Moms Stop the Harm after her son died of a drug overdose, said that more must be done to fight the crisis.
"Substance use disorder is a health issue and forcing those attempting to manage their health issue to buy unpredictable and often toxic substances from unscrupulous profit-motivated traffickers is unacceptable," Lapointe said at a joint news conference at the B.C. legislature.
Lapointe said the province must do things differently to save lives, adding the highly potent and addictive opioid fentanyl was detected in 86 per cent of the overdose deaths. She said illicit overdose deaths claimed more lives in 2018 than deaths from motor vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides combined.
Henry said her office is working with the Health Ministry, the Mental Health and Addictions Ministry and the Justice Ministry to find ways to deal with the crisis.
She said she is looking to help supply people with safe drugs and working with law enforcement to steer people into treatment and away from the courts and jails.
"These are the people we need to support with regulated pharmaceutical-grade opioids to help them and meet them where they are so that they are able at some point to look at the possibility of recovery," Henry said.
She said the "de facto decriminalization" of drugs can help people get rid of the shame and criminal stigma that prevents some from seeking treatment.
B.C.'s drug death numbers appear to be levelling off, but the crisis is far from over, Henry said.
"We need to find something positive in all of the work that has been put into keeping people alive over the last few years," she said. "If anything, it tells us that measures we're taking are helping out but they are not enough."
The provincial health officer declared a public health emergency almost three years ago in B.C. as the number of drug overdoses and deaths rose.
The figures for 2018 show middle-aged men are over-represented in the death toll, with 80 per cent of the suspected fatalities involving males. People aged 30 to 59 accounted for 71 per cent of the deaths.
Wood said there's an urgent need to end the harms caused by prohibition.
"Its incumbent for all of us to keep the pressure on and not get complacent," he said. "Fentanyl, unfortunately, is something that's not going away."
McBain agreed that a stronger response is needed.
"Work has been done, but the numbers, almost 1,500 people dying last year, is not good."
A task force involving mayors from 13 cities including Vancouver pushed in 2017 for prescription heroin to be made available to people who have not responded to other forms of intervention. Vancouver has the only clinic in Canada providing prescription heroin but it accepts a limited number of patients.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said in December that creating a safer opioid supply was being reviewed and discussed with provinces and territories.
Officials in cities including Vancouver and Toronto have also called for decriminalization as the number of overdose deaths increases across the country.
Canadian health-care experts have encouraged Ottawa to adopt Portugal's approach to drug policy, which decriminalizes limited amounts of drugs for personal use, while offering education and social supports.
Data from a federal task force on opioid deaths said nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of overdoses in 2017, a 34 per cent increase from the previous year.