LETTER: All quiet on the opioid front

International Overdose Awareness Day came and went. Recovery Day disappeared into the discard pile of calendar events along with the hopes of political election rhetoric. Many people were trained to administer naloxone, many attended to well-informed guest speakers and many more picked up information brochures on our opioid crisis (crisis: an unstable or crucial state of affairs, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome).

Now the frozen silence of winter has settled in,and in that silence, people continue to die. They die poisoned by the substances they took to relieve their pain, to dull the sharpness of abuse infesting their memory, even to experience some promised rhapsody. And because of a still-pervasive stigma in our society, they took their drugs alone and they died alone, safe consumption sites, naloxone trainings, speeches and brochures notwithstanding. The problem is not going away.

We couldn’t ignore it away. It wasn’t just “those people.” It was policeman’s kids, politician’s relatives, students, your neighbour, your child. It wasn’t just “street people.” Over 80 per cent of the deaths happened at home, alone, often our home.

We couldn’t police it away. Police budgets rose, more officers worked diligently, many large drug shipments were seized, and the street price of cocaine and heroin went down and the death toll rose.

We couldn’t medicate it away. Dr Bruce Alexander told us in 1990 in Peaceful Measures: Canada’s Answer to the War on Drugs: “Treatment fails because drug addiction is not a disease, but a way of adapting to desperately difficult situations. People cannot be ‘cured’ of adaptive strategies unless better alternatives are available to them.”

Those “desperately difficult situations” — abuse, homelessness, unemployment, hunger and chronic pain and the often accompanying stigma and shame — are still with us too, and because we have not legislated better alternatives, many people will adapt by taking drugs and far too many of them will die.

No, it hasn’t gone away. Even after six years of recognition by governments and media, even after four years of being declared a national emergency, and even after 12,800 deaths, people are still dying from poisons in the drugs they take, and of those who don’t die, many are left in a vegetative state. It hasn’t gone away.

If it won’t go away, we need to confront it and in the arena of health care rather than in our justice system. The trials say that such a process works, that people receiving a safe supply of their drug decrease their dosage, go back to work, stop committing crimes, stop dying. The trials say the process is cheaper by half, at $25,000 annually vs $50,000 in medical care and justice interventions.

What also hasn’t gone away though, are some strident voices demanding more policing, more forced treatments, more getting the visibly homeless out of sight. And they will get more — more first responders worn out because it isn’t easy trying to revive people every day and often failing, more taxes but not a cent going to programs that work, and more, many more, deaths.

*The government of Canada says:

Over 12,800 apparent opioid-related deaths Jan. 2016 and March 2019

3,023 deaths in 2016 & 4,120 in 2017

4,588 deaths in 2018: 1 life lost every 2 hours

1,082 deaths Jan to March 2019

In BC we’ve had a decrease in the number of opioid-related deaths, but that is not reason for good cheer; 1,082+ dead people is not a cheerful statistic. But we are tired of unpleasant statistics, and we all have our Christmas letters to write.

Ebeneezer Scrooge told the charity workers that the poor and destitute could “die and decrease the surplus population,” but we are not so hardhearted. We will write cheques to our charities, stuff the Salvation Army globes outside our liquor stores, drop off warm clothing at our churches, and donate goods in the food bank boxes at the door to our children’s school concerts. We are good people and we do not want this insanity of needless deaths to continue. We really do want someone who knows what to do to just do it. And we are the key to their doing just that.

If you believe it’s time to confront the national emergency of opioid deaths, Don’t turn away. Tell Judy Darcy, (MH.Minister@gov.bc.ca) that you want a program of safe drug supplies to be initiated now. Say that this is your New Year’s resolution and you want it to be theirs as well. Write the letter; it will take less than two hours and the life you could save may be one close to you.

Derek Peach

Victoria

(Derek lost a daughter to an opioid overdose in 2017)

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