The Hamilton Spectator
Overdose death data released as decriminalization begins
Suspected drug toxicity claimed 2,272 lives in 2022: B.C. Coroners Service
VANCOUVER Decriminalization of people with small amounts of illegal drugs for their own use has become a reality in British Columbia, but substance users and researchers say the change is expected to make little immediate difference because of a toxic drug supply.
The policy shift began Tuesday as the B.C. Coroners Service announced that suspected drug toxicity claimed 2,272 lives in 2022, the second-highest number in the province over a calendar year, trailing 2021 when 2,306 fatalities were recorded. An average of six people died every day last year.
Health Canada approved B.C.’s application for decriminalization through an exemption from federal drug laws so people 18 and over could carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as crack and powdered cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.
Users will not be arrested or have their drugs seized by police in what is a three-year pilot project.
Dean Wilson, who started working as a peer facilitator at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use in 2017 as a heroin user, said decriminalization is a welcome change to prevent drug users’ interactions with police.
However, he said it needs to be accompanied with a bold plan to provide more people with a broad range of safer alternatives to toxic street drugs, which profiteers often cut or contaminate with the powerful opioid fentanyl.
“They’ll cut their cocaine for five minutes, then they’ll cut their fentanyl on the same scale and all of a sudden there’s fentanyl on the cocaine. And when somebody who’s never done opioids at all gets the one (hit) that had a little bit of fentanyl, they’re dead,” Wilson said.
A regulated supply of pharmaceutical alternatives should be available through multiple routes, including compassion clubs, to save the lives of people at risk of fatally overdosing, he said.
“There’s nothing out there that’s safe unless you test your dope every time. And you can’t do that if you’re an active addict.”
Insite, a supervised consumption site that opened in Vancouver in 2003 as North America’s first such facility, is among the few places to have a specialized machine that drug users can access to get their substances analyzed for contaminants including fentanyl.
Take-home fentanyl test strips are also available there and at designated sites to allow people to test their drugs within seconds.
Despite such services, over 11,000 peoplehave fatally overdosed in B.C. since 2016, when the province declared a public health emergency. Those deaths led to the policy to stop criminalizing people who use drugs as a way to reduce stigma so they’re more likely to get help for an addiction.
“If people think there’s some kind of correlation between the decriminalization of drugs and the decrease of overdoses resulting in deaths, that is not gonna happen,” said 64-year-old Wilson, who has been on a methadone treatment program since last May to help reduce his cravings for opioids, which he said he began using at age 13.