Authors of a newly published article that examines the impact COVID-19 is having on people who use drugs (PWUD) say the stark rise in overdose death numbers throughout the pandemic calls for two key systemic changes.
They say the decriminalization of personal drug use and access to a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade drugs is needed to help prevent the rising number of deaths caused by the increasingly toxic, illegal supply.
“The harms associated with criminalizing people who use drugs and putting them in jail, and the harm associated with our illicit drug supply, have become even worse during COVID,” Tommy Brothers, a medical resident in Halifax.
A statement on the overdose epidemic, released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Sept. 30, speaks to the compounded impact the pandemic is having on PWUD.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, provinces and territories have experienced the ‘highest number’ of opioid-related harms and deaths.
Since 2016, more than 16,000 Canadians have died from opioid-related overdose deaths across Canada.
The first three months of 2020 saw 1,018 deaths and 1,067 opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations.
Matthew Bonn is one of the co-authors of the recently published article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Bonn says the goal of the article is to examine the concurrent public health emergencies PWUD are experiencing during the pandemic and to spark a nationwide conversation about innovative evidence-based solutions to combat the overdose crisis.
“The aspect of the paper is a syndemic. A syndemic is really multiple health and social issues that interact to worsen each other. So, really not just focusing on the health issues but a lot of the social issues that worsen and accelerate the disease progression of the health issues,” Bonn said.
He adds that challenges like a nationwide shortage in affordable housing stock is one example of concurrent health and social challenges PWUD encounter daily.
Brothers says the unfortunate reality of the rising overdose crisis is that there are evidence-based solutions that can help slow the death rates but those solutions aren’t being put into place fast enough.
“The arguments that people with lived experience of substance use and advocates like the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs have been calling for for years are even more timely now,” Brothers says.
Those sentiments are echoed by Dr. Mark Tyndall, another author of the paper.
“Criminalization is just institutionalizing stigma. So, we’re just saying that what these people are doing in society is wrong, illegal, they should be punished,” Tyndall said, a professor of medicine at the UBC School of Population & Public Health said.
“As long as we think that way we’re not going to really address the stigma problem and we’re not going to really change the way we treat people. So, I think decriminalization goes hand in hand with a regulated supply of drugs.”