By Dr. David laing Dawson
The scourge of drug addiction and premature death from drug addiction has always been with us in some form or other. And over the past 20 years, in this part of the world, and many other enlightened jurisdictions, we have tried very hard to reduce the harm caused by drug addiction.
- We have redefined addiction, at least in part, as an illness rather than a choice, to some extent absolving the sufferer from any personal and moral responsibility.
- We have ensured medical doctors do not contribute to addiction by prescribing excess opioids for pain.
- We have institutionally aligned drug addiction with mental health and mental illness services.
- And we here and there have provided safe injection sites, methadone clinics, and ubiquitous Naloxone kits. We have, in theory, made it much safer to use and to survive an accidental overdose, and much easier to get into “treatment”.
- Insite opened in 2003 as North America’s first legal supervised injection site, located in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Their published statistics have been quite remarkable, showing the number of customers per month, the few overdoses on premises, and the fact of no deaths occurring on premises.
- And of course we have made marijuana legal in Canada.
But, in British Columbia and throughout Canada, the number of deaths from accidental overdose has (with one year exception) increased year over year the past 20 years, peaking, so far, for British Columbia, with 201 deaths in the month of October, 2021, and 1782 for the first ten months of 2021.
Of course, well-intentioned people are now calling for more safe injection sites, more treatment facilities, more money spent, more de-stigmatization, more empathy, and no legal ramifications for holding small amounts of illegal drugs.
(As a side note I think institutionally aligning drug addiction with “mental health” did not help the addicted population much, but certainly increased the stigma of mental illness. In fact, in public attitude, it has, in a sense, tarred mental illness with the same brush as addiction. In our folk wisdom we know, really, that there is at least some choice and personal responsibility involved when someone reaches for that needle or packet of powder. And now, I suspect, at least more than in the period between 1960 and 1990, our folk wisdom (mixing addiction and mental illness in our minds) has allowed us to assign some personal responsibility and choice (blame) to the homeless person suffering from schizophrenia.)
I don’t profess to have an answer, and I know there are other variables afoot, COVID being one of them, but I think before we insist on doing more of the same, more safe injection sites, more addiction treatment, more naloxone kits, more de-stigmatizing of addiction, legalizing all drugs, we should seriously consider that what we have done for addiction over the past 20 years may have made the problem worse; and it certainly did not reduce the numbers and it certainly did not help attitudes toward mental illness.
(I just read an article from some authority claiming we must do something different for addiction, but then went on to propose more of the same.)
But here is an idea: 2000 overdose deaths in one province in one year is a big cohort. Why don’t we study each and every one of these overdose deaths in depth to look for some clusters or patterns. And if we find some patterns or identifiable clusters we can then develop some targeted prevention, rather than argue about large grand schemes (that could have more unintended consequences) such as legalizing all drugs, or providing safe injection sites in every neighbourhood.
The basic demographic data is available: male, female, age, drug found in the system, but many more questions could be asked, such as:
How many were taking prescription opioids safely before being cut off?
How many of these deaths have occurred because of a contaminated supply?
How many of these addicts had an underlying and treatable mental illness?
How many had underlying other medical conditions or deficiencies?
How many of these overdose deaths are occurring in back alleys and how many in homes or housing of some sort?
How many of these deaths are addicts using alone?
How many of these overdose deaths are occurring with addicts who have gone through treatment programs and have had a period of being clean and thus developed reduced tolerance and then gone back to using the same dose as before?
For how many was addiction a replacement for meaningful activity or a replacement for meaningful human relationships?
(Most accidental-death-by-overdose cases I read about, including that of famous musicians and actors, have been situations of a period of sobriety by choice or force (jail, hospitalization, treatment program) followed by a relapse. If this is a significant percent of the death by overdose population it suggests a very inexpensive and targeted prevention program would include clearly telling every addict as he or she leaves a treatment program, hospital or jail: “You will relapse. And when you do you must cut your usual dose in half or you will die”.)