B.C.’s top doctor fought back tears Thursday as she responded to a record number of overdose fatalities in the province last month.
The B.C. Coroners Service reported 175 suspected overdose fatalities in June, the province’s highest-ever monthly death toll. COVID-19 is linked to 189 deaths in total in the province.
“We need to put as much time and effort and kindness and compassion into caring for people who use drugs as we have been successful in doing in responding to the COVID-19 crisis,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry urged the federal government to end criminal penalties for people found in possession of small quantities of drugs, and renewed her call for access to “clean” drugs for people with addictions.
“I am calling again on the federal government to take this to heart, to take the advice of the chiefs of police who know that this is an important step … and there’s no more important time for us to do this than now,” said Henry.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for decriminalization of simple possession last week.
Henry has been pushing for the policy change since 2019, and argues criminalizing drug users further stigmatizes them, pushing them further from recovery.
Decriminalization would require federal action to change the Criminal Code of Canada.
Data from the B.C. coroners service has confirmed that street drugs in British Columbia are highly toxic, frequently cut with fentanyl, carfentanil and other deadly additives.
Advocates for drug users say the pandemic has exacerbated drug toxicity because of border closures, while pushing them indoors to use alone — often resulting in overdoses.
“This is a tragedy for all of us, especially for the family and the friends and the community of these people,” said Henry.
“We know that safe supply, hydromorphone, diacetylmorphine, is not what is killing people in their homes and on the street right now.”
British Columbia has implemented a pandemic protocol by which health-care workers can prescribe “clean” opioids to drug users.
On Thursday, Henry called on more clinicians to get training to dispense those drugs.