A scholar of addiction who teaches at the University of Victoria says new data about the opioid crisis underscores the need to decriminalize drugs currently deemed illegal.
Bernie Pauly, an associate professor in the UVic School of Nursing and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (formerly CARBC), said the data released by Statistics Canada Monday confirms that the “devastating” and “tragic” opioid crisis is impacting a range of people, with individuals from lower-income bracket affected worse than others.
Pauly made these comments after Statistics Canada released a report into the sociology of those who died of illicit drug overdoses between 2011 to 2016 in British Columbia, where the most illicit drug overdose deaths have happened, rising from 293 in 2011 to 639 in 2016.
Looking at regional numbers, recent figures from the BC Coroners Service shows Greater Victoria has seen 64 illicit drug overdose deaths between Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 — down from 91 in 2017 and 68 in 2016, but up from 22 in 2015. Vancouver and Surrey have so far led the way in 2018 with 256 and 131 deaths.
The federal study found among other points that 34 per cent of people who died from an illicit drug overdose in British Columbia had no earnings during the five years prior to death. That is eight per cent more than the number of people who worked in each of the five years prior to dying from an illicit drug overdose.
As for the remainder, some had some level of employment during the reference period prior to their death.
“The contrast in these statistics shows that this crisis impacts individuals from all walks of life — the employed and the unemployed alike,” the report read.
Pauly agreed with this argument that opioid users who die come from all walks of life — but only to a degree, noting that men in their 30s and 40s make up a major share. Victims also tend to be lower on the socio-economic scale, she said. According to the report, British Columbians who were employed in the year prior to their fatal overdose earned an average of $28,437 — below the 2016 average income of British Columbians of $42,000.
A similar pattern appeared with social assistance. “In British Columbia, 40 [per cent] of people who fatally overdosed did not receive any social assistance benefits (or provincial or territorial supplements) in all five years prior to death, compared with 31 [per cent] who received assistance in each of the five years,” it reads.
This new reporting does not include any regional figures that would help policymakers target specific groups. For Pauly, this fine-grained analysis might not be necessary though to deal with the larger problem.
“We have an unsafe drug market because of our current drug laws,” she said, calling for the decriminalization of illicit drugs.
Canada, she added, has made progress on files like cannabis, but more can be done in other areas.