Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

MALCOLMSON: 2020 left us grappling with overdose tragedy and working for change

B.C.’s Addictions Minister reflects on visit to Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver

By Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions

Where were you in the year 2020? This will be a question asked around dinner tables for years to come.

Some people will recall the challenges of working from home while raising kids. Others will reflect on how difficult being on the frontlines was. Too many will remember losing a loved one to overdose, because 2020 was the year when illicit street drugs became more toxic and dangerous than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health, and underserved populations have suffered the most.

In B.C., 1,716 people lost their life to overdose in 2020 – that’s almost five people a day. Before the pandemic, overdose deaths dropped for the first time in years, but COVID-19 has made everything worse. One of the most insidious things has been a disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs, leading to dramatically more lethal drugs on our streets. Add that to the stigma that drives people to use alone, on top of social isolation, and you have a recipe for a tragic surge in overdose deaths.

READ MORE: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history

On a virtual tour of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I met Sam, a 29-year-old supervisor who is in recovery and working to help others. Sam connects with about 100 people a day who drop by for addiction services, food and support, and says many who use drugs just want to be heard and have a friend.

Behind each overdose statistic is a person with a story.

Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a health condition. Whether a person has a heart problem, diabetes or a substance use disorder, they deserve access to dignified, barrier-free health care.

The overdose crisis requires urgent action – people’s lives depend on it. We are working as quickly as possible to patch holes in the system and build something better.

Separating people from toxic street drugs is the first step to saving lives. Today, 23,000 British Columbians are receiving medications to treat opioid addiction – more than ever before. B.C. is training registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe these medications to help more people. This work is the first of its kind in Canada.

We are doubling youth treatment beds and adding 100 more publicly funded adult treatment beds to ensure help is available when someone is ready to take that step.

And we are breaking new ground on increasing access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs, and working with the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances – as called for by police chiefs and others – to reduce stigma and remove barriers in the way of people getting help.

When people ask me where I was in 2020, I will be proud to say I joined a team of passionate people like Sam working to save lives across the province. 2020 was a tragic year, but there is reason for hope as we push forward and innovate to build the future of mental health and addictions care British Columbians deserve.

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