British ColumbiaOpinion

Strengthening our response to B.C.'s opioid crisis

Health minister shares his views as part of our series, The Fentanyl Fix, solutions to B.C's overdose crisis

Terry Lake - for CBC News

January 30, 2017

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake speaks to media after a tour of the Mobile Medical Unit set up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to treat people suffering from overdoses. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

British Columbia is experiencing one of the most tragic health crises of our time.

Over the last year, more than 900 people died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia — numbers unprecedented in our province's history. Illicit drugs — in particular synthetic opioids like fentanyl — are claiming lives every day.

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I have spent hours researching illicit drugs, addiction and recovery, and many more hours consulting experts in these fields. I have come to realize that, as we combat this tragedy, we have a chance to turn a new page on how we help people with addictions.

Harm reduction critical first step

People must be alive for us to help them with their addiction. That is why the emergency harm reduction measures we put in place as our first steps have been so critical — without which the death toll from this terrible epidemic would have been much higher.

In fact, B.C. has distinguished itself as a leader in the battle against illicit drug overdoses. We were the first to declare a public health emergency and the premier was the first to assemble a joint task force of leading health and criminal justice experts to address this crisis from all fronts.

Lake says supervised consumption sites are one of many measures the province has taken to combat addiction. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

We are the only jurisdiction in North America to have supervised consumption services and we were the first to implement overdose-prevention sites.

We were also the first province in Canada to establish a take-home naloxone program, which has provided more than 22,000 lifesaving kits; this and our regulatory changes to allow all first responders to carry naloxone has helped reverse thousands of overdoses throughout B.C., saving countless lives.

Access to services crucial

But equally important is the longer-term work that has been underway to improve treatment supports — because it is crucial that people with addiction have a range of affordable, easy-to-access services to support their journey every step of the way.

More than 400 additional treatment beds will have been opened by the end of the month, rising to 500 by the end of March, 2017. On top of that, we just announced a further 60 intensive residential treatment beds and 50 intensive outpatient treatment spaces to be opened in the coming months.

The inside of the overdose treatment facility set up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The province and health authorities have also significantly expanded access to the opioid addiction treatment medication Suboxone, with no-cost coverage for people with lower incomes, more clinics where it is prescribed and more doctors trained to prescribe it.

We have invested $5 million to establish the new B.C. Centre on Substance Use, the first provincial centre of its kind in Canada.

The centre is headed by Dr. Evan Wood, one of Canada's foremost researchers in addictions medicine and  is focusing on research, education and training to make sure addiction treatment in B.C. is effective and evidence-based over the long-term.

Not as simple as fixing a broken leg

Treating addiction is not as simple as fixing a broken leg. We cannot order people into treatment, and history has proven that we cannot effectively choke off the supply of illicit drugs.

What we can do is try to keep people alive when they are struggling with addiction, and continue to work together to improve the factors that affect health, like education, economic opportunities and reconciliation of historic wrongs to Indigenous people.

As individuals, we experience personal challenges but if we come together as a society, our mutual hope can help us lift each other up when we most need it.

First responders surround an overdose victim on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

I am profoundly grateful for the hard work, compassion and skill demonstrated by our partners across the health and public safety sectors. These people are heroes — paramedics, nurses, counsellors, peer support workers, volunteers, police, first responders, doctors and others working every day on the front line of this public health crisis.

We will get through this crisis. I fervently hope that it leads us to a better understanding of physical and emotional pain and how to relieve it, to more effective ways of supporting vulnerable members of our communities and to seeing each other as fellow human beings who are doing their best with what life throws at them.

Terry Lake is B.C.'s minister of health.

This story is part of CBC's Opinion content. For more information, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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