The night of 15 December 2016 was not a good one for British Columbia.
Actually, that might be an understatement. After all, it was a night when thirteen people across the province died from drug overdoses, a number that capped the 622 who had died in the first ten months of the year, and the 2590 since 2011. One of those people was Owen Joe, who died at the Colonial Hotel in Gastown, Vancouver. His cousin Jason Pierre told the Vancouver Sun that Joe had been a straight-A student, good with computers, but that he’d struggled with addiction all his life. “I want everyone to know that he wasn’t just an addict,” Pierre told the paper. “He was a human being and he had a lot of aspirations and goals like we all do.”
In the press conference the morning after, representatives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, along with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, looked stunned. And why wouldn’t they be? Even for a problem as dramatic as hard drugs, this was a doozy of a night.
Of the 622 people who’d already died - 128 in November alone - 60% overdosed because of something called fentanyl - a synthetic opioid used to cut doses of heroin to make them go further. Fentanyl is the endgame, the final result of a policy of prohibition that has driven addicts and suppliers deeper and deeper into the black market. It is horrifically, hysterically toxic. Tiny amounts can increase the profit on a load of heroin - and tiny amounts can kill. Oh, and did we mention carfentanyl? The derivative that is also seeing action in Canadian cities? This wonderful concoction is actually elephant tranquiliser, ten thousand times more potent than morphine. When a country’s addicts are mainlining something used to bring down a bull elephant, you know you’ve got a serious problem.
Any physician can treat any addict with the active ingredient of the drug, diacetylmorphine, as well as painkillers like hydromorphone.
So the question is: if Canada has reached a stage where the black market is liberally producing an unquestionably lethal product, isn’t it about time we legalised the drugs in question? As we spoke to various researchers and activists about this issue, two things became immediately apparent. The first was that the government is, in fact, dedicated to solving this problem - as opposed to just pretending to be, which seems to be the default position of many governments worldwide - and that they’re (mostly) putting measures into place that are likely to be effective. The second is that, for a problem this complex, they aren’t quite doing enough.
Right now, you can actually get legal heroin in Canada (although there’s nothing for cocaine, or any other hard drugs). Any physician can treat any addict with the active ingredient of the drug, diacetylmorphine, as well as painkillers like hydromorphone. This is a fairly recent policy, one the Justin Trudeau government implemented as part of its mission to unravel the hardline policies of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. In addition, while this story was being reported, Jane Philpott - Trudeau’s Minister of Health - announced a new bill that would make it much, much easier for cities to create supervised injection sites: places where users could take drugs in a safe environment, with medical support on hand. Philpott also announced that she’d be working with the Ministry of Public Safety to crack down on fentanyl imports, mostly by outlawing unregistered imports of pill presses and allowing border officers to open any package smaller than 30 grams - something they could not previously do.
We’ve spent trillions of dollars in North America combating drugs since prohibition, and we’ve done a terrible job of it.
Privacy considerations aside, it’s a step in the right direction - a move towards actual legalisation. But the problem is, no matter how well-intentioned a government is, they’re still a government - and they move slow. Up until now, there hasn’t been nearly enough money being spent on the problem, and the measures have not been implemented fast enough. Certainly not for Owen Joe, and the hundreds of others who have already died.
“For any other illness, you have an array of options for the patient,” says Dr. Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes, an Associate Professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. She’s responsible for the Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness (SALOME), a study which found that the pain medication hydromorphone was just as effective at treating addiction as diacetylmorphine. “For addiction treatment, we want to settle with one or two. People are diverse. They have diverse needs, complexities in their communities. Some people are never going to come to hospitals or a clinic to inject hydromorphone or diacetylmorphine. But they might go to a supervised injection site that is run by a friend, and then do drugs in a safer way.”
We need to listen to the people who are suffering. First line workers, people who use drugs, they need to be at the table.
Dr. John Anderson, a former corrections officer who acts as a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - an organisation made up of cops, prison guards and crime professionals who want full legalisation - says he thinks the government’s measures are on the right track. “The evaluations I’ve read are very positive,” he says. “They are not without problems – there’s always the danger of a black-market – but if we can encourage people who are addicted to the substances to get treatment and care, and provide them with things like employment and housing opportunities, because these things are very much entwined…It means spending a lot of money to deliver returns that I think are going to generate a better financial outcome than the present policy that we have so far.
“We’ve spent trillions of dollars in North America combating drugs since prohibition, and we’ve done a terrible job of it. The new legislation that Canada is talking about is a start, because we can look at how that progresses and see if that model can work.”
Anderson says that although full legalisation is a long way off, there’s certainly the “blueprint” for it - and that he’s confident it won’t be watered down. “We don’t have all the answers,” says Oviedo-Joekes, “but the only way to come out of this is to do it together. And together means not just the policymakers. We need to listen to the people who are suffering. First line workers, people who use drugs, they need to be at the table. You can’t just continue making decisions for a community. You need to listen to them.
“We are the closest we have ever been to creating an option for those who need it.”