These 5 myths about BC’s toxic drug crisis are hurting efforts to stop deaths, experts say
In the five years and 10 months since British Columbia declared a public health emergency over drug-related deaths, the problem has only gotten worse.
Statistics released by the BC Coroners Service this week are confirmed that 2,224 lives were lost in 2021making it the deadliest year on record.
Proponents argue that part of the problem is that many people with the power to make a difference rely on outdated or incorrect ideas.
“People don’t actually want to face some serious realities here, and so these comforting lies are being embraced in a lot of ways. It’s awful because it’s stopping all of us from addressing this in a real way,” said Karen Ward, a drug policy. consultant to the City of Vancouver.
To better understand some of the misconceptions, CBC spoke to experts who are experiencing the crisis from three different perspectives: Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, Chief Coroner Lisa LaPointe, and Ward.
Here are five of the most common myths they encountered.
It’s an ‘opioid’ or ‘overdose’ crisis
These shortcuts for emergency have become less accurate over the years.
“People are actually trying to find opioids,” Ward said. “The problem is that they get essentially unknown substances.”
If people don’t know what they’re taking, the word “overdose” – which implies that someone has simply taken too much – hardly captures what’s going on.
LaPointe adds that, unlike other parts of North America, the crisis in British Columbia has never been an over-prescription of painkillers like oxycodone, and attempts to address the problem by limiting the ability of doctors to prescribe opioids have been misguided at best.
The latest statistics from the coroner show a hodgepodge of drugs linked to deaths in British Columbia, with fentanyl and analogues like carfentanil detected in 91% of fatal doses in December, and stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine in 73%
Perhaps most alarmingly, benzodiazepines were found in half of the samples, up from just 15% in July 2020.
There could be serious consequences as a result. For one, benzodiazepines are highly addictive, notes LaPointe.
“Withdrawing from opioids is hard, but it’s nothing compared to withdrawing from benzodiazepines,” she said.
There is also the fact that naloxone, one of the key components of BC’s harm reduction strategy, will not reverse overdose of non-opioid drugs like benzodiazepines.
“Naloxone doesn’t affect benzodiazepines,” McBain explained.
British Columbia has a secure drug supply
As it has been almost two years since British Columbia announced its plans ensure a safe supply of medicines during the COVID-19 pandemic through access to prescription alternatives, shouldn’t a safe supply be widely available now?
“I wish that were true,” LaPointe said.
She says she regularly checks with health authorities to see how many people can access a safe supply.
“The answer is always almost no one.”
There are only a handful of federally funded safe supply programs in British Columbia, all located in Vancouver and Victoria.
“How do you actually access it? Nobody really knows,” Ward said. “If you have the social power to have your own doctor…you might be able to do something about it.”
McBain also takes issue with the drugs offered in the programs she has seen.
“If you are a person who is, let’s just say, addicted to fentanyl, the government is not willing to give you fentanyl. They say, ‘Well, we’ll just give you hydromorphone,'” a- she declared. .
“It doesn’t work for people.”
Only “addicts” die
According to LaPointe, the BC Coroners Service convened a death review committee in December to discuss the drug poisoning crisis, and the data they reviewed shows that people with severe drug addictions do not represent the majority of deaths.
“You can be a first-time user, you can be a weekend user, you can be every few days, you can be a daily user,” she said. “The offer is the unknown.”
Ward says the increasingly toxic drug supply is making her increasingly worried about the dangers of what she describes as “the normals” – people who might do drugs for fun at a party, for example.
“If you’re a regular opiate user, you actually have tolerance,” she said. “But…the vast majority of people who use drugs do it from time to time.”
People are dying from injection drugs
The image of someone dying with a needle stuck in their arm just doesn’t match the reality of British Columbia. According to the coroner’s latest reportonly 19% of toxic drug deaths in 2020 could be attributed to injecting use.
By far the most common path to a drug-related death in 2020 was smoking, at 56%.
“There’s another myth that smoking is safer, but it’s not,” LaPointe said.
This is important in part because of the role that supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites play in saving lives. According to the coroner, no one died from illicit drug poisoning at these sites in 2021, but they are still largely intended for injection drug users.
“If we want to keep people safe, then consumption sites only for intravenous use or needle users will not be effective,” LaPointe said.
She acknowledged concerns about protecting staff from drug vapours, but said overdose prevention sites are now starting to accommodate more smokers.
It’s a Downtown Eastside problem
LaPointe describes this as one of the most frustrating myths she encounters.
“Drugs are toxic, so it doesn’t matter where you live in the province or your socio-economic status or your job. If you take a toxic drug, you will die,” she said.
Despite this, addiction services in British Columbia are largely concentrated in downtown Vancouver and other urban areas.
It’s true that the highest number of drug-related deaths occur in Vancouver, but every corner of the province sees people dying from drug poisoning: the Thompson Cariboo, Northwest, The North Interior and East Fraser had some of the highest death rates in 2021.
“It’s in every community in BC,” McBain said.
“It’s in rural communities, it’s in small towns, it’s in big cities, it’s urban, and it happens that people in the Downtown Eastside are more visible.”