Responding to the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid overdose epidemic was the focus of conversation Monday afternoon at the BC Mayor’s Caucus as Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Dr. Bonnie Henry and Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc presented different perspectives and potential solutions to the epidemic. The Honourable Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions also joined the panel to share new Ministry initiatives, and stayed to take questions from the mayors.

British Columbians are experiencing unprecedented rates of overdose-related harms and, now, overdose is the leading cause of unnatural death in the province.  More than 4,700 people have died in British Columbia since April 14, 2016, the day that BC’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, declared a public health emergency in response to the opioid overdose epidemic.  

Local governments are struggling to respond to an epidemic that knows few social or economic boundaries. Mayor Leclerc told delegates that the opioid epidemic has moved beyond the centres of Vancouver and Victoria and stretched to the far corners of the province.  Small cities are being forced to deal with big city issues with limited financial and staff resources. Leclerc suggested that local governments need the Province to adequately fund policing, health care services, addictions treatment, and social services so residents can access the type of supports available in more densely populated areas.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart highlighted the City of Vancouver’s Safe Drug Supply Statement that advocates for an alternative to the unregulated, unpredictable and toxic drug supply.  This statement was recently ratified at a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.  The motion requires the FCM to call on the federal government to safely provide regulated opioids and other substances through a free and federally available Pharmacare program and to declare a national public health emergency which would provides exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The aim of this initiative is to enable cities and towns to run pilot programs which prioritize a move toward a safer drug supply.

Minister Judy Darcy provided the Ministry's perspective, and confirmed that addressing the crisis is a government priority. The Minister reviewed the additional funding announced for community action teams as well as for needle distribution and recovery programs. Following the presentation, mayors from across the province came forward to speak of the challenges in their communities. A common theme was the frustration of residents and business owners with the worsening of the crisis and compassion fatigue. The Minister took note of their comments and encouraged them to continue to contact her with their suggestions for addressing the crisis.

Collaboration between local governments, federal and provincial governments and healthcare stakeholders will be necessary to bring BC out of this dark epidemic and reduce the negative impacts of this growing social challenges.

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