Regulated drug supply, streamlined services recommended as next steps in fighting overdose crisis

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer recommends regulating the drug supply, streamlining services and expanding preventative measures in a new report that outlines the next steps for the region's overdose crisis response.

Dr. Patricia Daly's report is based on data learned over the past two years. Vancouver Coastal Health — which covers the City of Vancouver, Richmond, North and West Vancouver, as well as the North Coast and Garibaldi areas — has had the highest rate of overdose deaths of any B.C. health region.

"Legalization and regulation of all psychoactive substances would reduce people's dependence on the toxic illegal supply, criminal drug trafficking and illegal activities that people with addictions must engage in to finance their drug use," Daly said in a written statement.

In 2016, the opioid crisis prompted the province to declare a public health emergency.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, supported the idea of establishing a regulated supply of drugs, especially because "the illegal market is an absolute toxic mess right now."

Regulating the drug supply — providing safe, measured doses of drugs — allows drug users to know exactly what they're ingesting. 

Rafferty Baker/CBC

"It's really in line with consumer protection strategy ... just like we do with every other substance that we ingest, whether it be food or drugs," McPherson said. 

As for how practical the recommendation would be, he says the public health community and scientific community are already there, but there needs to be more political buy-in. Drug laws are under federal jurisdiction.

"The politicians have not caught up to the science and the evidence and they're afraid to try something new," MacPherson said. 

"The tragedy in that is that many people are going to die because you're not implementing a new approach."

In April, B.C.'s top health officer recommended the province move urgently to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use, saying the crisis needs to be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice matter.

Other recommendations

Other key recommendations in Daly's report included streamlining existing services, and expanding services aimed at prevention.

"At a time when they are most vulnerable, people with addictions and their families must navigate a complex and fragmented system of care that includes programs that may not make use of evidence-based treatment or employ best practices," the report read.

Maryse Zeidler/CBC

The report also noted that many of the deaths were concentrated in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, and that many people there live with greater socioeconomic disadvantage. In fact, the life expectancy for men who live in the neighbourhood was 15 years shorter than men who lived in Vancouver's west side.

According to the BC Coroners Service, nearly 4,000 people have died of an overdose death in British Columbia since the province declared a public health emergency on April 14, 2016.