Day 6

Amid 'horrific' spike in opioid deaths, doctors call for decriminalization, regulation of drugs

Facing a more 'toxic' drug supply during the coronavirus pandemic, opioid-related overdose deaths have grown significantly across the country. Advocates, experts and politicians are calling on governments to go beyond safe supply prescriptions and decriminalize recreational drugs.

During the coronavirus pandemic, overdose deaths have grown significantly across the country

A close up picture of fentanyl tablet split in half with powder showing.
In June, B.C. saw a record 175 opioid-related overdose deaths, up from the previous month's record of 171. (CBC)

With opioid overdoses spiking during the coronavirus pandemic, two doctors say decriminalization is crucial to preventing deaths.

According to Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addictions physician in Vancouver, relying on doctors to provide "safe supply" prescriptions doesn't go far enough.

"Most health-care professionals and physicians and addiction doctors do believe that we have to do something on the drug supply side, but we don't think it's the job of doctors to prescribe these medications when there's no research to support us doing it," said Ahamad.

"We find it irresponsible of the government to download what really is their job — to regulate the drug market."

Physicians in B.C. were given the go-ahead in March to prescribe drugs like methadone and hydromorphone to certain patients in an effort to prevent overdoses, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. By June, more than 1,300 people had accessed the drugs.

B.C. Premier John Horgan has urged the federal government to decriminalize drugs for recreational use. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

But with two consecutive, record-breaking months of overdose deaths in the province, advocates, experts and politicians — including B.C. provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — have called on governments to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use.

B.C. Premier John Horgan sent a letter Monday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging the federal government to decriminalize drugs for recreational use, writing that prohibition does not discourage drug use and criminalization deters people from getting help.

WATCH | Spike in opioid deaths during pandemic a 'disaster of epic proportions': 

Deaths from opioids spike during pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 2:00
There has been an unprecedented spike in opioid overdoses in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 25 per cent increase in Ontario and a 39 per cent increase in British Columbia.

Last month, B.C. recorded 175 deaths from opioid overdoses, up from May's record of 171. In Ontario, the province's coroner reported a 25 per cent increase in fatal overdoses from March to May.

"For people battling addiction, living through this pandemic has been really challenging in a number of ways," Ahamad added.

"This virus has led to people relapsing and using substances when they actually haven't in a significant period of time," he told CBC Radio's Day 6.

"What I'm seeing is people relapsing and returning to alcohol use or other illicit substance, and during that time, many people overdosing and presenting to hospitals and detox centres looking for help."

'They're gambling with their life'

The pandemic has made an already challenging situation difficult, according to Dr. Christy Sutherland.

"It's been pretty horrific," she said. "We've had four years of an overdose crisis in B.C. so far — and a crisis isn't supposed to last for four years ... the pandemic has just made it more complex and more terrible."

Dr. Christy Sutherland said decriminalization and regulation of recreational drugs could help curb the illegal — and unsafe — drug market. (Rob Newell)

As a result of "prohibition and border closures," the drug supply has become more toxic throughout Canada.

The pandemic, she argues, has encouraged organized crime to create more dangerous drugs.

"What we're seeing is more toxic substances being sold on the street as opioids, and for people who have opiate physical dependence, they have no choice, but they have to continue to use in order to alleviate withdrawal," she explained.

"Each time they use, they're gambling with their life and they're living in fear about death with each dose."

Sutherland agrees that it should not be up to doctors to regulate the safe supply of drugs for recreational use, and without proper regulation, black market drugs are allowed to thrive.

"I'm very happy that the police chiefs across Canada have called for decriminalization because it is a waste of money and time to arrest people for personal possession," she said.

"It is a change in scope of practise and police that would save money and save resources if we just decided as a country what is a reasonable amount of drugs to possess that is not a harm to the public."

Regulate the market

Speaking on The Current Wednesday, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said that the province took action on allowing safe supply prescriptions when the federal government made it a possibility — but ultimately, they're "pushing the envelope" of the Controlled Substances Act.

"It's about working with the federal government in order to gain greater exemptions and more flexibility under the Controlled Substances Act," she said. 

"It is also about the federal government heeding the call of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and heeding the call of our premier that we need to stop criminalizing people who are struggling with an addiction."

Dr. Keith Ahamad said regulating drugs like opioids for recreational use could provide funding for addictions and support programs. (British Columbia Centre on Substance Use)

Dr. Ahamad says that decriminalizing drugs like opioids for recreational use would allow the market to be regulated in a "sophisticated" way that takes profits away from organized crime.

Profits from the sale of legal drugs, he argues, could go toward funding "housing and recovery opportunities" for those living with addiction.

"When regulating the drug market — like a drug market for heroin or other opioids like fentanyl — you would do something very different than having tobacco sold in a corner store or alcohol at a liquor store," he said.

"There would be social workers or addiction doctors and peer support workers at that touchpoint, offering people help at every opportunity rather than a drug dealer that's really just interested in financial gain."

Written by Jason Vermes, with files from The Canadian Press. Produced by Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.

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