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Editorial: B.C.'s opioid crisis is poisoning our friends, family members, neighbours

A public emergency was declared five years ago today. Since then, it's only gotten worse

Today marks a sobering anniversary in one of B.C.’s public health crises and, unfortunately, this isn’t one for which a vaccine is available. Five years ago, on April 14, B.C. declared a public health emergency after 200 people died from using tainted drugs. In most cases the drugs were opioids poisoned with fentanyl.

Since then, thousands more people have died. In 2020, there were 1,724 illicit drug deaths. A further 329 people have died in the province in the first two months of 2021.

Over the past five years of the crisis, we’ve come to associate opioid drugs use with images of the Downtown Eastside. That is certainly one part of the picture, but it’s not all of it. There are family members living on quiet residential streets in North Vancouver and other similar communities also receiving devastating news.

Shame around addiction means we don’t always hear their stories. It also drives people who use drugs to do it in secret, often alone in their own homes. Too often, that scenario turns tragic.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis. But so has the continued stigma of illegal drug use that makes it so hard for those struggling to admit they need help.

Advocates are asking for compassion, and for changes that would decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs and provide a broadened safe supply.

A safe supply can be the difference between keeping people alive long enough to help them, yet it has not been an easy sell politically. The opioid crisis is one that defies neat solutions. But failing to try comes at far too high a human cost, and five years is far too long for an emergency to exist.