Barry Gerding.

Column: Facing the reality of overdose deaths

BC Coroner drug overdose death statistics for 2021 headed in wrong direction

When it comes to tragedies, raw statistics never reflect the true story.

Last week, the BC Coroners’ Office generated headlines, again, by drawing public attention to the fact 201 people died from illicit drug toxicity deaths for the month of October.

That grim statistic marked the province’s deadliest month for drug-related deaths on record, adding to the now 1,782 illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and October of this year.

For Liberal MLA Renee Merrifield, those numbers crystallized into something much more – one of those drug abuse fatality statistics was a friend of hers.

“It is real. These are not just statistics, these are real people,” Merrifield said as she apologized for getting emotional at the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce luncheon last Friday, which she along with Central Okanagan fellow Liberal MLAs Norm Letnick and Ben Stewart were the guest speakers.

While addressing her assigned topic of the economy, she talked briefly about the need to change a drug abuse trajectory heading in the wrong direction for too long.

She cited how Portugal, a country often cited as forward-thinking in how it deals with drug abuse, had 26 drugs deaths last year, a country with three times the population of B.C.

In the 1990s, one per cent of Portugal’s population was hooked on heroin, at the time one of the world’s worst drug epidemics.

It prompted that country’s government to take a novel approach: possession or use of any drug was to be treated as a health issue, not a crime.

Public opinion swayed in favour of the move because every family at that point was likely to have its own drug addict, so pervasive was the problem.

Under the decriminalization laws, convicted drug dealers are sent to prison, but anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug gets mandatory medical treatment. No judge, no courtroom, no jail.

Instead, they end up in a sparsely furnished, discretions, unmarked centre for counselling with government sociologists, who decide whether to refer them to drug treatment centres.

Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the European Union average.

Merrifield said the hit-and-miss approach to our drug problem, what she called a political shell game, needs a rethink.

A few days before the chamber luncheon, BC Liberal Party leadership candidate Kevin Falcon made a campaign whistle stop in town to speak with party members.

He spoke about his personal renewed commitment to issues like affordable housing, drug addiction, family support resources, issues he says have hit home with him since he left politics after losing the leadership race to Christy Clark.

Returning to the private sector from the friendly confines of the provincial legislature, he says, caused him to be confronted by issues others talked to him about in everyday life – things like housing affordability, climate change, mental health care strategies and drug addiction.

He acknowledged some Liberal members gave him second looks when expressing those thoughts, but he explains that Liberal hallmarks of budget management and economic growth are still very present in his thinking. It’s just not enough anymore.

Creating jobs is not the magic panacea that solves all problems, that mental health care needs to occupy a greater share of the government priority budget planning pie in this province.

But it has often as got a short shift in past decades, and drawing more fiscal attention will be challenging looking ahead as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and severe weather impacts causing flooding and wildfire issues that overwhelm our provincial infrastructure.

While Merrifield and Falcon may be saying the right things, the opportunity for real change remains remote until is it not.

The numbers released by the Coroners Service last week held our attention briefly the day they were released, and most of us have long since moved on.

It is going to take a better effort from all of us beyond just moving on.

Barry Gerding is the regional desk editor for the Okanagan division of Black Press Media.

barry.gerding@blackpress.ca.

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