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Opinion: If the opioids crisis is a public health emergency, B.C. should treat it as one

The BC NDP government can do more on the opioids crisis. They can start with bipartisanship.
B.C.’s opioids crisis hasn’t been met with the same urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic, says columnist Mo Amir.

British Columbians have seen an urgent response to a public health emergency: regular media briefings, public health orders put into immediate action, data, a coordinated strategy with health authorities, unprecedented measures for unprecedented times.

It all felt like the provincial government took the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. By the same rubric, the other public health emergency — B.C.’s opioids crisis — hasn’t been met with the same urgency despite five years, seven thousand deaths, and counting for both.

The public health consensus seems to be that decriminalization and low-barrier access to a safe drug supply will prevent the deaths.

While B.C. Premier John Horgan has formally asked the federal government to decriminalize the personal possession of illicit drugs — which might not happen — our provincial government can do more on its own.

In the April 2019 “Stopping the Harm” report, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recommended that B.C. amend the Police Act to achieve some of the outcomes of decriminalization without the federal government. 

As noted by nearly two dozen drug policy organizations and experts, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth rejected the recommendation “within hours of the health officer releasing her report”.

In September 2020, Dr. Henry issued a public health order authorizing registered nurses (including psychiatric nurses) to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives (safe supply) to users of street drugs. It took nearly five months for the first nurses to prescribe the pharmaceutical alternatives and not nearly at the scale needed.

As Crackdown podcast’s Garth Mullins estimated, only about 2,000 of British Columbia’s 80,000 to 100,000 opioids users have access to safe supply.

Currently, nearly six people die every day in B.C. due to a toxic drug supply. How high must that daily average be to compel the province to hold daily — or even weekly — briefings on this public health emergency?

In March 2020, Premier John Horgan announced that “partisanship has left the building” at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the province. Indeed, the parties worked together on the public health response to the pandemic. Yet, the opioids crisis has not inspired our government to transcend party politics in the same way.

In May of this year, the BC Green Caucus proposed a “cross-party committee” on the illicit drug toxicity crisis to de-politicize this public health emergency through collaborative work and shared accountability.

BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau explained that the BC NDP government rejected the proposal and, instead, offered “regular briefings”.

“We got one [briefing],” Furstenau confirmed. “Not an opportunity for us to give input. Just to hear their plan — which is an expansion of their old plan. And more and more people are dying.”

Even before the pandemic, bipartisanship for public health was not new to these three parties. In 2019, a steering committee comprised of B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, BC Liberal MLA Norm Letnick, and Furstenau proposed recommendations to overhaul the regulation of health professionals.

Yes, the modernization of B.C.’s health professions’ regulatory system enabled collaboration and a unified government effort, yet a public health emergency where a half-dozen British Columbians die every day has not.

Bipartisanship in addressing the opioids crisis would also be politically advantageous for the governing BC NDP: It disarms opposition. The BC Liberals could no longer accuse the government of focusing too much on safe supply; the BC Greens could no longer accuse the government of being slow moving. 

In the BC Greens’ proposal, each party assumes ownership and accountability of policy action. This negates almost the entire political risk of controversial, yet evidence-based, measures like low-barrier safe supply.

But no, the government has chosen to keep the door open for partisanship on this crisis.

It is disheartening to see two concurrent public health emergencies where only one receives the type of urgent response warranted by an “emergency” whereas the longer, more stigmatized crisis actually gets worse.

If the illicit drug toxicity crisis — the opioids crisis — were truly an emergency, the response from the provincial government would mirror the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first step in tackling that public health crisis was a government that worked collaboratively with the other, willing parties. That’s indicative of a crisis truly being taken seriously.

Mo Amir is the host of This is VANCOLOUR, a politics and culture podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and