Editorial: First priority is to prevent drug deaths

We need to get at the roots of drug abuse, find out what factors lead people to take illicit drugs, and figure out what support they need to get off drugs and stay clean. We need to get the message out there that drugs are not the solution to problems. We need to step up efforts to apprehend and prosecute manufacturers and distributors of illicit drugs.

But first, we need to stop people from dying.

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And to do that, we must do things that might seem counter-intuitive to many of us, such as providing safe-consumption sites or perhaps free, clean heroin to people who are addicted. We must stop regarding people who are addicted to drugs as criminals or some lower form of life, and see them for who they really are: victims of a terrible illness who need help, not condemnation.

In the first 11 months of this year, 755 people died from drug overdoses in B.C., an increase of more than 70 per cent. In November, 128 deaths from drug overdoses were reported in B.C., double the monthly average in 2015. The toll shows no sign of abating — 13 deaths were reported in one day last week.

About 60 per cent of these illicit-drug deaths involved the powerful opioid fentanyl, and that proportion is rising.

“We are quite fearful that the drug supply is increasingly toxic, it’s increasingly unpredictable and it’s very, very difficult to manage those who overdose. And for those who are attempting to use drugs safely, it’s almost impossible,” B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said Monday.

The use of illicit drugs has always been fraught with danger, as they come with no guarantees of content or quality. Fentanyl, though, takes that danger to a new and terrifying level. It is easily manufactured, and so powerful that it can be shipped in envelopes and small packages.

The war on drugs — the U.S.-led effort involving prohibition, military intervention and enforcement — has not been effective. The profit potential is huge, so there will be no lack of people willing to be involved in the drug trade.

The key, then, is to destroy the market. That can be done, some people say, by supplying heroin by prescription, putting dealers out of business and vastly reducing the criminal aspect of drug use.

Providing safe-consumption sites, so that help is available if overdoses occur, sounds like enabling. But people will take the drugs anyway — in a much more risky environment. Rehabilitation should be the goal, but a dead person cannot be rehabilitated.

Drug addiction is complicated. Every person so afflicted has a different story. For some, the problems start before they are born. Some have mental illnesses that have gone untreated. Others suffer neglect and abuse, the depths of which many of us could not comprehend. Injuries leave many with chronic pain. Some lead lives utterly devoid of hope. Drugs offer temporary relief.

There are better ways to deal with the suffering, but they take time and considerable resources. Much work needs to be done to alleviate conditions that lead to drug use, conditions such as poverty, abuse, and physical and mental illnesses. Prevention is seldom a popular political move — its results are not immediate and they are hard to measure — but in the long term, it is far less costly.

We should not abandon the war on drugs, but we should add new weapons to its arsenal: more treatment that is accompanied by ongoing support, housing, job training, counselling and prevention. We need to address the poverty and discrimination that leave people without hope.

But first, we need to stop people from dying.

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