British Columbia

Decriminalization should be considered to stop overdose crisis, says Vancouver's chief doctor

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, says the only way to stop the deadly opioid crisis is to get people off illicit drugs and onto a legal substitute.

'We need to consider decriminalizing or even legalizing all illicit drugs,' says Dr. Patricia Daly

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, stands at the entrance to the Downtown Eastside's mobile medical unit. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The only way to stop the fentanyl crisis is to get everyone off illicit drugs and onto legal substitutions — even if that means decriminalization — according to Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical officer.

Yesterday, the BC Coroners Service revealed 914 people in B.C. have died from illicit drug overdoses in 2016, 215 of which were in Vancouver, making it the deadliest year for overdoses on record.

Dr. Patricia Daly, who is also vice-president of public health for VCH, said the health authority has implemented a variety of measures including longer hours for Insite, extra overdose prevention sites, widespread naloxone availability, and opening a mobile medical unit.

Although Daly praised the work of medical staff, first responders, and overdose prevention sites, she pointed out the number of deaths keep rising.

"We haven't yet taken the steps that we really need to turn things around," she said. "This is a crisis of a contamination of an illicit drugs supply."

Daly said more drastic measures need to be considered.

"I don't think we're going to turn this around until we get everybody off illicit drugs and onto a legal substitute. We need to consider decriminalizing or even legalizing all illicit drugs."

A good first step, she said, was the provincial government's commitment yesterday to provide more funding for suboxone.

However, substitution therapies like injectable heroin or hydromorphone also need to be more widely available, she said.

Province-wide crisis

Daly also pointed out the fentanyl crisis is different from the 1990s heroin crisis which mainly affected Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The crisis is provincewide, she said, and the death rates are as high in communities in the Interior, Vancouver Island, in the north as they are in the Lower Mainland.

Those regions are even more in need of support, she said.

"In fact we've got more facilities here in Vancouver to begin a response than they do in those other communities," she said. "We need to expand those services not only in Vancouver, but other places in the province."

Daly will be speaking tonight on a panel discussion on community responses to the opioid crisis organized by the Strathcona Residents' Association at the Strathcona Community Centre from 7 to 9 p.m. PT.

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Dr. Patricia Daly on Vancouver's opioid crisis