The BC Nurses Union wants the federal government to decriminalize opioids, saying safe injection sites are not enough. File photo

BC Nurses Union calls for decriminalization of opioids

BCNU president wants the federal government to do more to reduce preventable deaths

The BC Nurses Union is calling for action on the opioid overdose crisis.

BC Nurses Union president Christine Sorensen called on the federal government to decriminalize opioids, saying that despite provincial efforts the death tolls are high.

“BC has some of the most progressive harm reduction programs and policies and has been a leader in promoting supervised injection sites,” she wrote. “Yet the province continues to face one of the worst overdose crises in the country – almost 2,000 British Columbians died of preventable opioid overdose in 2016 and 2017. And in March of this year, we saw overdoses spike to 160, the second highest monthly toll in the province’s history.”

Sorensen is a public health nurse who works in prevention, and said that through her work she’s been exposed to the humanity of people who suffer from addiction.

“Nobody grows up wanting to be addicted to anything, this happens because people have complex health issues and complex personal lives,” she said. “The reason we’ve come out on this is that substance abuse is a health issue, not a criminal or moral one.”

RELATED: 511 overdose deaths in B.C. so far in 2018: Coroner

Decriminalization would help break the stigma that drives many people to hide their actions, or prevent them from seeking help, Sorensen said, noting that 90 percent or those who died in 2017 were at home and alone.

“Supervised injection sites alone don’t help these people,” Sorensen said. “We need to stop treating the most vulnerable members of our society like criminals. We’ve learned from countries like Portugal that when you decriminalize, people feel safe enough to ask for treatment.”

As front line workers, nurses see more overdoses than most, and reports of trauma and anxiety have been reported.

“We’ve seen so many patients we care for die,” she said. “The psychological distress of people dying, of people overdosing repeatedly and not being able to help people in need, it makes you feel helpless.”

Declaring the current crisis a national public health emergency under the Emergencies Act would allow Ottawa to effectively address the issue and reduce preventable deaths, she noted.

RELATED: Moms of those killed by illicit opioids take to B.C. Legislature in call for action

As an example of the toll the crisis is taking on families and communities, Sorensen pointed to the death of Ryan Hedican of Comox, who died of an opioid overdose last year at age 26. His death prompted his parents, Jennifer and John Hedican, to start a petition in March asking the federal government to decriminalize opioids. Since it began it has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures.

In an interview in June, Jennifer Hedican told Black Press the opioid crisis was getting less attention than other epidemics.

RELATED: Parents grieving teen’s overdose death say it started with opioid prescription

“We need it to be a national public health emergency, like it was for H1N1, SARS and Ebola, which they haven’t done for the opioid epidemic … at this point more people have died from drugs than the other three combined,” she said. “We’re hoping to have as many signatures as the people who have died over the last two and a half years, which would be more than 10,000.”

Sorensen is encouraging the public to sign the petition, which calls for the government to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, that drugs be decriminalized and that a safe source of drugs be provided.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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