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COMMENTARY: Does CERB money play a part in driving Canada’s drug overdose crisis?

Dr. Bonnie Henry’s emotional response to B.C.’s record-breaking drug overdose numbers in May
WATCH: (June 11) Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry became emotional during her daily COVID-19 briefing when speaking about the 170 deaths that occurred during May from illicit drug overdoses. The numbers reported by the B.C. corners service Thursday reflect the dramatic increase in the toxicity of the street drug supply in the province.

For several years now, British Columbia has suffered some of Canada’s highest death counts from fatal drug overdoses.

But not even B.C. — home to some of the country’s most desperate and vulnerable intravenous drug users — had ever seen a month like May 2020.

British Columbia recorded 170 fatal overdoses, the highest single-month total ever recorded in a province that had been making progress at reducing the death toll.

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, quickly triggering new monthly spikes in overdose deaths.

What is driving the carnage? Experts point to the brutal impacts of the pandemic itself.

READ MORE: B.C. records highest ever number of opioid deaths in May

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Public orders to socially distance and self-isolate drove many addicts indoors, where they were using alone.

Using risky street drugs alone — laced with deadly fentanyl — is particularly hazardous for anyone who overdoses with no one nearby to call for help.

The border lockdown has also disrupted the supply chain of street-level narcotics. Dealers are cutting drugs with more fentanyl still making it into Canada through the mail.

Other street drugs are being mixed with benzodiazepines, a class of tranquilizers that do not respond to naloxone, the life-saving medication used by first responders to reverse the effects of an overdose.

All of these are obvious and logical reasons for the carnage. But another more uncomfortable theory is emerging.

Could the easy supply of money from government relief programs like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit — the CERB — be fuelling the overdose crisis?

“It’s perhaps not popular to say that the increase in money in the system may be a factor,” Terry Lake, a former B.C. health minister, told me.

Lake, who was part of a previous Liberal government that officially declared opioid addiction as a public health emergency in B.C., said he’s hearing regularly from social workers that CERB money is wreaking havoc among drug users.

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“They’ve had first-hand experience,” he said.

“Vulnerable clients all of a sudden have a lot of money. This may be fueling the increase in toxic drug use and leading to overdose deaths.”

READ MORE: B.C.’s top doctor urges compassion in emotional response to record-breaking overdose deaths

But others on the front lines are not convinced.

“That’s definitely a wrong view, as far as I’m concerned,” said Laura Shaver, a board member at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an advocacy group for addicts.

“There’s been a fentanyl crisis going on since 2015, long before the pandemic.”

She also points out many hardcore addicts are not eligible for the CERB anyway.

“A lot of people can’t access CERB because they haven’t been working, so they’re not even eligible for it.”

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But Lake has heard plenty of stories of people applying and getting CERB whether they’re eligible or not.

“They often have been encouraged to apply for CERB, even though they may not qualify, by people willing and wanting to sell them illicit drugs.”

So what’s the answer? Cut desperately poor and addicted people off CERB?

Lake and Shaver said that’s not the answer. They both call for the decriminalization of drug possession, while making available a reliable supply of fentanyl-free opioids to addicts by legal prescription.

The B.C. government said it is making “safe” drugs available to addicts. But Shaver said only a fraction of the estimated 5,000 intravenous drug users in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood have actually been able to get them.

Now Trudeau is extending the CERB. The border lockdown has been extended, too.

Watch for Canada’s drug-overdose crisis to deepen, as pressure grows on government to take more effective action to deal with it.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.